Bhavani Devi: Living by her sword
Bhavani is undeterred by the absence of a history of the sport in the country, or the limited training facilities
Two quick steps - almost a dance - and then the lightning lunge. The tip of Bhavani Devi’s sword plunged into Sarah Jane. A red light flashed; the winning hit is scored. Bhavani pumped her fists and let out a roar. She removed her mask and walked away - she had just become the first Indian fencer to win an international tournament. The big moment came and quietly slipped past Bhavani in Reykjavik, Iceland in 2017. There was no fanfare; no teammate or coach by her side. Just Bhavani and her sword.
It has been this way as long as she remembers; a lonely journey. Fencing is not a sport India knows. Bhavani is undeterred by the absence of a history of the sport in the country, or the limited training facilities, or her parents’ struggle to arrange finances for her - her mother is a homemaker and her father a priest in Chennai.
“Till I won that gold medal (in Reykjavik) no one knew much about fencing, no one cared much about my performance other than the people very close to me. I used to travel alone without any coach,” said the 26-year-old sabre fencer.
“I cannot forget that moment. I was alone and I couldn’t share that joy with others but that competition was a turning point for me and for fencing in India.”
The triumph put Bhavani firmly on track to become the first Indian fencer to compete at the Olympics. It would have been a remarkable achievement, except, just as she was close to making the cut for the Tokyo Games, the pandemic happened.
“The first few weeks when the pandemic started it was really hard for me,” she said. “I was in Italy. I came back from a competition in Greece. My coach said there is a chance that Italy might go into a lockdown so we need to plan for our training. Next day I left for Belgium where they were having a training camp. That was also cancelled and I had to return home. As far as the Olympics were concerned, we did not know what would happen.
“That period was very tough for me because I worked very hard for the last few years for this time, to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. But it was not in anybody’s control and after they announced the Olympics had been postponed, I felt a bit calmer.”
After riding through the months-long lockdown and lack of training, Bhavani picked up the sword again recently and is back at work in Chennai, training at the Centre for Sports Science at Ramachandra University.
She has been working with Nicola Zanotti, a renowned Italian coach who has led the Italian team to several Olympic medals, since 2016. Stuck in Chennai, Bhavani’s training is being monitored over mail and videoconferencing from Italy.
“He will ask me to focus on offense action or defensive action on particular days,” she said. “He gives me the details of each workout session. I am doing basic fitness this week. I had intensive training two weeks ago. So next two weeks will focus on fitness and rehab exercise for some injuries in the past, and again get back to intense training.”
Bhavani is now eagerly waiting for competitions to restart and also to return to Italy to her training base.
“With my current world ranking (45) I am almost certain to qualify (for the Tokyo Olympics),” she said.
“There would be no competition for next few months. Competition might start towards the end of the year, so I need to keep myself fresh and slowly increase the intensity of our training.”
Her stint with Zanotti has meant a massive leap in skills, Bhavani said, citing a match at the 2019 World Championships where she was up against Romania’s Biance Pascu, a former world No.5, in the last 16 stage. Bhavani was trailing 5-13 when she began to work with her timing and action. She mounted a spirited fightback and took the match to 14-all.
“In the last point I made a blind mistake and lost the match, but it was great learning for me,” she said. “If I can give performances like that I can beat anyone.”
Fencing came to Bhavani accidentally in 2004, when she was ten years old. That year, she had joined a new school in Chennai and was looking to sign up for a sport.
“I don’t like to sit at one place. When I moved to a new school in standard 6 we had to choose one sport,” she said. “The only option was fencing because all places in all other sports were filled up.”
She had never heard of it, but it intrigued her that it involved handling a sword.
When the time came to pick one among the three fencing events, she went for the fastest - sabre.
Her first breakthrough came three years later when Sports Authority of India (SAI) coach Sagar Lagu spotted her and invited her to train at the SAI academy in Thalassery, Kerala.
“It’s a professional training base for any athlete so I was so excited to join that place. I waited to finish my 10th class in Chennai and shifted to Kerala in 2008,” Bhavani said.
Lagu, a former international player from Maharashtra, has himself been learning the art through trial and error. “There is lack of knowledge about the sport in India. We don’t have that much playing experience because we participate in just a few tournaments. We don’t have coaches and experts,” he said.
“It is very difficult when you do not have any benchmark in front of you, no role models, no achievements to follow,” Bhavani said. “I didn’t get to participate much internationally at the junior level and the difference at the senior level was huge.”
The support she got from her parents and her coach kept her going.
“Parents of my friends and other people in the fencing family advised my parents ‘why are you letting your daughter continue in this sport? There is no future in it, no jobs.’ But my parents never told me anything about quitting. They always motivated me.”
However, a time came when Bhavani was almost ready to quit - she knew she had to train outside India to make any headway in the sport, but she had no funding to speak of.
“My family had spent a lot of money. There were several business people who also came forward to sponsor me, but still the equipment expense is very high and I was tired of organizing all those things,” she said. “I had thought of giving up in 2013.”
It was then that she got selected for a Go Sports Foundation scholarship programme and that changed everything. In 2016, she shifted to Italy and began the next step of her evolution as a fencer.
Why did she work so hard at a sport she knew nothing about?
“I fell in love with the sword, jacket, the mask,” she said.
“And attacking people,” she added after a pause and grinned.