Meet CA Bhavani Devi, the first Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics

The first Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics, CA Bhavani Devi from Chennai, discusses her 17-year journey as she focusses on Tokyo

In 2004, a shy 11-year-old girl walked into Chennai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium for the first time, tightly clutching her mother’s hand. A new student at Muruga Dhanushkodi Girls’ Higher Secondary School, Tondiarpet, CA Bhavani Devi had just learnt the term ‘fencing’ as part of the ‘Sports in Schools’ initiative started by the late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.

Vishwanathan P, who would soon be her first coach, looked on from the parapet, and put the little girl to a 30-second test. “I don’t remember what the test was! But right then, I knew she had the talent,” laughs Vishwanathan. In 30 seconds, she secured a spot in the school’s fencing classes, among 40 other girls.

Cut to March 15, 2021 in Budapest, Bhavani, now 27, made history by being the first Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics. In July, she will represent India at the Tokyo Olympic games.

Currently ranked 42nd in the world and 1st in the country, the sabre fencer from Old Washermanpet qualified through the Asia/Oceanic Zone of official rankings after Hungary lost to South Korea in the quarter-finals of the Sabre Fencing World Cup.

Wielding a sword, dressed in an electric suit and mask that flickers when the opponent’s weapon lands a jab, her swift, calculated footwork and mental focus brought her this honour, after failimg to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. She states, “In 2016, I realised that there is a limit to which you can put pressure on yourself. It backfires.”

Seventeen years on, Bhavani still wears a coy, almost uncomfortable smile, when put in the spotlight. In the few days she got to spend at home before flying to Italy to resume coaching, she has had little time to relax.

This week, the Olympic hopeful was named safety lifestyle company MY’s goodwill ambassador at an event in Phoenix MarketCity’s Club Crest where MetroPlus caught up with her.

Baby steps

Bhavani remembers starting with bamboo sticks. The little equipment they had was saved for competitions. “We used all sorts of things to practice,” she reminisces. “We would go to the stadium at 5.30 am everyday and from there to school. In the evening, from school back to the stadium and then home. This was the routine for years.”

Catching the public bus on time to get to the stadium and back, was a struggle she remembers. “But, we still enjoyed the process.” Vishwanathan quips, “She was a ‘jolly’ child, and it was fun to train her.”

The 40-member fencing group at school quickly diminished and five years down, Bhavani was the sole participant. Fencing then was still an unknown sport in India with no big achievements to point out, says Bhavani. “Some wanted to focus on education. Some felt fencing was not good for girls. There were no job prospects in the sport unlike athletics or volleyball,” Bhavani says.

Bhavani Devi  | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Many asked if the sport was “safe enough” for a girl to pursue. Bhavani’s mother Ramani, a constant and perhaps the most significant presence in her life, nipped such negative comments in the bud. Ramani says, “‘Why should you bother,’ I asked them. The girl is interested in this, so let her be.”

The proud mother is now preparing to fly to Tokyo to watch her daughter’s most anticipated competition. Time and again, Bhavani reiterates that her parents — her late father was a priest and her mother, a homemaker — were her biggest support. She says, “Many ask her if she is proud to be ‘Bhavani’s mother’ but it’s the other way round. I am proud to be her daughter.”

The fencer’s first breakthrough came when Sports Authority of India (SAI) coach Sagar Lagu spotted her and invited her to train at the SAI academy in Thalassery, Kerala.

She finished Class X packed her bags and moved to Thalassery where she continued her studies and trained at the same time. In 2017, she became India’s first international gold medallist at the Women’s World Cup held in Reykjavik, Iceland.

All eyes on her

Bhavani says there is a surge in the interest towards fencing in India. “Earlier, when I used to win international medals, many wouldn’t understand what the excitement was about,” she recalls. But now, people have started recognising the equipment.

Modern fencing is a combination of three disciplines: the épée, the sabre, and the foil. While in épée, the entire body is a valid target area, in sabre, the upper body becomes the target and in foil, only the torso can receive a strike. Weapons used in each also differ in terms of their make and flexibility.

Bhavani specialises in sabre fencing, in which a typical competition lasts only 10 minutes. Has she ever felt been intimidated? “I have never been afraid, even my parents haven’t for that matter. You can get hurt anywhere, it’s all about how you take care of yourself,” she says.

Bhavani specialises in sabre fencing which requires her to wear an electric jacket and mask  | Photo Credit: special arrangement

The novelty of fencing is what kept Bhavani going, despite briefly considering giving up in 2014 as she did not want to put her family through more financial pressure.

The GoSports Foundation came to her support in 2015, and she currently trains under an athlete mentorship programme named after Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid.

Bhavani has been training under renowned coach Nicola Zanotti in Italy for the past five years. Though she knows that all eyes are on her, ever since qualifying, Bhavani has tried to block out the pressure.

Two fencing sessions of two to three hours each and physiotherapy schedules (to straighten out an injury that happened in 2015), make up most of her day. In addition, she has fitness sessions four times a week. “Fencing is a mental sport but physical strength is important for all sports,” she says.

With only months to the Olympics, Bhavani recalls the times she had to travel to international competitions alone. This time though, she has the entire country backing her.

With her trademark shy smile, she concludes, “I will make you all proud. I am confident.”

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