Trailblazing fencer Bhavani Devi: I will not hold anything back at Tokyo 2020

Bhavani Devi became the first fencer from India to qualify for the Olympics

By Soham Mukherjee

It was fortuitous that Bhavani Devi took up fencing.

In school, she had five options in sports to pick from. But by the time she had gone to fill her choice, only fencing had a slot left. She wanted to be an athlete and without much thinking, she opted for fencing. That was a forced choice that would go on to be a pathbreaking one years down the line when she became the first Indian fencer ever to qualify for the Olympics last Sunday.

With a lot of enthusiasm, she appeared for training but had little idea what question would greet her in her first encounter with the sport.

"What is your father's annual income? the trainer asked me on my face," recollected Bhavani during a press interaction following her momentous achievement.

"I lied to them to get into the sport. But soon I understood why the teacher asked me that. It is really a very expensive sport. In the beginning, we used bamboo sticks to play and practice. Swords were only for competition. If you break one, it is very expensive and it had to be imported to India," she added.

Her first competitive tournament also did not go as planned as she lost while her other friends in school won medals.

"That motivated me even further."

In the next competition, she bagged a bronze. However, gold remained elusive. To make that a reality she joined the SAI (Sports Authority of India) centre in Thalasseri (Kerala) to train under Sagar Lagu, one of the finest coaches in India.

Bhavani Devi and her coach Nicolo Zanotti

In her first international competition in Turkey, she got a black card for being late by three minutes and hence was debarred from participation. She was just 14 back then and the troubles had just started.

Without a sound financial back up, she had to travel alone without a coach across the world to participate in competitions. She used to be the sole representative from India in the sport and the athletes from other elite nations like Italy and USA would often look down upon her.

"I didn't feel the same respect that they had for me that they had for other peers."

Meanwhile, back home apart from the monetary struggles she had to face a barrage of criticisms from the relatives and neighbours.

"When I dreamt about the Olympics, people would say that you cannot do anything in this sport. You are a woman. You should go and search for a job. But I did not give up. I stuck to it and just worked harder.

"I tried to find sponsors on my own and there were many individual persons in Chennai who came and helped me. That period was the most difficult and most important for me."

With perseverance and sincerity, she began to make a mark in the international circuit. She is now ranked 42nd in the world in Sabre fencing and is the highest-ranked Indian.

In 2020, she had almost qualified for the Olympics but due to the coronavirus pandemic, everything was in jeopardy. She was in Belgium and had to sweat a lot just to be back in India before the international boundaries were closed.

"I was a little disappointed when they said that the Olympics might be cancelled. I had almost qualified. It was a very tough situation for me during the lockdown. But I am grateful to Go Sports and the government that I could come back to India in time and could stay with my family. They motivated me that things will not go away from me. We did many therapy sessions, online fencing training, fitness sessions. I recovered from my back injury which I had suffered. I used to train on the terrace during the lockdown. I actually had the belief that the Olympics will happen. I never gave up hope," she stated with a beaming smile.

Her mother C A Ramani Devi was her constant support and while her daughter would battle overseas she would fend off questions from relatives about Bhavani's career choice and whereabouts.

"The first 10 years was a struggle. As a mother, I was scared about the safety of my daughter. Everyone questioned when she travelled abroad alone. Relatives would ask various kind of questions. I prayed to God to keep her safe and bring her back home unhurt," she said.

With an Olympic berth secured through the Adjusted Olympic Ranking (AOR) method, Bhavani is a motivation for budding fencers. She feels that fencing must be introduced in schools and a change in mentality must be brought about amongst the general public to help popularise the sport.

"People don't give respect to fencing as they give to other sport. When you win it is easy and when you can't then they say she will not be able to do it. So I had to always push myself a lot. There must be a change in mentality amongst the people about how they look at fencing. People said why are you wasting money on fencing. I have remained honest with my work. It is not important to just go to the Olympics. I did not want to have any regrets in life. I wanted to give 100 per cent to the sport. I am happy with the decisions that I have made across my journey."

Bhavai feels that the top nations have been in fencing for over a century and for India to catch up with them a lot of work needs to be done at the grassroots coupled with massive investments. And encouraged by her achievement the Fencing Association of India has pledged to open 50 academies across India with 30 kids across various age groups within March 31, 2021. In the next phase, 70 more would be added at the district level.

"We have got a budget of Rs 20 crore from the government and all the academies will be opened by March-end," confirmed Rajeev Mehta, General Secretary of FAI.

During her Olympic qualification event, she bowed out of the competition at the Round of 64 to a Hungarian opponent. With close to four months from the Games in Tokyo, she would leave no stone unturned for an impressive outing.

"I want to give my best performance at the Olympics. I will not hold back anything. (I) want to give the best in front of the whole world," affirmed a confident Bhavani.

With persistence and purpose, she has earned the ticket to the biggest stage. A podium finish might be too far-fetched. But the girl has a dream!