Bhavani Devi, India’s first fencer to qualify for Olympics, opens up on her dreams and challenges

“Chase your dreams and dreams do come true” – an overjoyed Bhavani Devi wrote on social media after she became the first fencer from India to book an Olympic ticket. 

The sabre fencer, who hails from Chennai, qualified for the event during the World Cups in Hungary after the hosts faced a defeat in the quarterfinals, which eventually assisted in Bhavani making the cut to Tokyo Games. 

However, the 27-year-old’s journey witnessed a series of struggles especially during her initial years, and now she is filled with confidence to give her best at the showpiece event, scheduled to take place in July-August this year.

Introduction to fencing 

“I picked the sport back in 2004 and my journey started with a defeat in my debut. Everyone else from my team won a medal except for me and this was something that really motivated me to put in my best efforts,” Bhavani said, during a virtual press-meet on Wednesday.

Adding more insights on her introduction to fencing, Bhavani said that it was the only option as she was keen on joining sports rather than sitting in class. However, the school where she studied had only five sports in their curriculum, out of which four were already filled leaving fencing as the only option for her. 

The Big Money Factor & early experience

Finance was another factor that Bhavani and her family had to look after, considering the heavy money the sport requires.

On her first training session, Bhavani was asked a rather unwelcoming question about her father’s income, which she had to lie about then.

“When I joined this sport, the first question they asked students was, ‘How much is your father’s annual income?’ They said fencing is a very expensive sport and one couldn’t afford it if they came from a poor family. At that point, I lied about how much my father was earning in those days,” Bhavani said.

“It was only later that I understood why that teacher had asked us that question. The swords and the equipment were very expensive. In the beginning, we would practice with bamboo sticks and use our swords in competition only. This was because if we broke the swords, we couldn’t afford to buy them, and that process wasn’t easy either because it had to be imported.”

Bhavani, who also is the first Indian to win an international tournament in this discipline, feels that it was very ruthless at the beginning, especially with her being the only member of the Indian contingent.  

However, she felt more welcome when the news of her Olympic qualification broke, and opposition teams came and congratulated her.  

“India’s fencing was not looked upon very highly in foreign countries, especially with me being the single member to represent the country without any coach. However, things are changing and the day I qualified for Tokyo, many participants came and congratulated me.”

The 27-year-old also feels that the sport can make rapid progress if it is introduced in every school across the country. 

Meanwhile, Bhavani’s mother, Ramani, who was also a part of the virtual meet, shared her fears about her daughter’s safety, especially regarding her traveling alone to various countries for participating in tournaments. 

“Our relatives, neighbours would always ask if it was safe for her to travel alone. I was also very apprehensive initially. She was so young. But Bhavani has amazing strength and a blazing desire to excel,” a proud Ramani said in Tamil.

Lockdown gains and losses 

The Sabre fencer, who was in Italy when the pandemic struck, terms it as one of the most stressful moments.  But she is thankful to the authorities who helped her get back to India before international borders were shut.   

Bhavani, who was yet to qualify for the Olympics then, was left in a tizzy as she was in touch with her Italian coach Nicola Zanotti over mails and video recordings.

Adding to it was the lack of partners for her to practice with, so Bhavani came up with a unique way of training, but it didn’t pay much dividends.

“During the lockdown, my priority was maintaining the same form and keeping up my fitness levels. We tried to improve some technical skills with the sabre as well as my footwork. But I didn’t have partners during the period and had to work with dummies. We tried to do our best to improve but I was good at maintaining my form and fitness level. I also recovered from a back injury which I had a few months before lockdown.” 

The speculations of the Olympics getting canceled also was another setback for the 27-year-old, but the news of postponement came as a relief.  

“I was very sad when speculations rose about the Olympics getting canceled. I was yet to qualify, but I was in great form and I was preparing for the event. However, I had a belief that it won’t be canceled and when the news was announced that it has been postponed, I felt very relieved. 

“I took help from therapy sessions, practiced yoga. It was also good that I was with my family and it was a lot easier discussing things with my parents,” she added. 

The yesteryears and Tokyo plan  

A confident Bhavani also asserted that she had no doubts about picking up fencing, despite it not being very popular in the country. The 27-year-old also highlighted the efforts she invested in order to fulfill her Olympic dream.

“I never had any doubt about my decision regarding this sport whether I had good results or bad, I gave my best. I always tried to improve myself and do better in competitions. Because fencing in India is a new sport, it’s developing now, in Italy or any other country they are playing for more than 100 years. So, for us to arrive at that level we have to work double than other advanced countries.”

“So, I always worked very hard like I would do three sessions or train on Saturdays that’s why I was able to arrive here. If I had missed something in training I wouldn’t have been here and the support from others because we had to spend more money on fencing as I had to compete in many competitions to get more points,” Bhavani said.      

“I want to give my best performance in the Olympics. I don’t put any limit on my achievement; I want to enjoy everything and every process that I’m going to do from now till the Olympics. I want to give the best performance in front of the whole world and want to make my country proud,” she concluded.   

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