A woman of many firsts in the sport, the 29-year-old from Chennai also has the honour of being the first Indian to win a Commonwealth Fencing Championships gold medal – which she did in 2018, and the first Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics – achieving the milestone three years ago, in Tokyo.
In a conversation with The Quint following her recent triumph, Bhavani shed light on the difficulties of pursuing a sport battling for popularity, whilst also shedding light on her plans for the future.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
Bhavani, firstly, congratulations on your historic achievement. Becoming the first Indian to win an Asian Fencing Championships medal – has it sunk in yet? Can you put the feeling into words?
This is a very special medal for me. We have been waiting for this medal for a long time. After this, I hope everyone will now dream about reaching the podium, not just ranking.
You say this is a ‘special’ medal – why is that so?
It is a big achievement for me, because beating world number 1 Misaki Emura is not easy for a fencer from India. We are in a developing stage, whereas the likes of Japan and China have already achieved so many things in fencing. So, this is a very big move for Indian fencing at the international level.
Fencing is not a very popular sport in India. How did you get into it?
I started fencing at my school in Chennai. It was a government-aided school. I loved playing all kinds of sports. When I was given the opportunity to pick a sport, I chose fencing. I had no idea about it, but once I started playing it, I was so happy. It was a unique sport, something that I had never seen before. You are given a sword and loads of equipment. When you are young, these things attract you. That gave me joy when I started fencing. Later on, I started dreaming about winning medals for India – both national and international.
Being a female in combat sports, have you had to battle against societal stigmas?
My family never asked me any questions. They never said ‘You’re a girl, why are you playing this sport? This is not popular.’ All the questions I have been asked are from the outsiders, like media and relatives. When my family was supportive of me, I never thought of any disturbance or hindrance in my career. I think, because of their support, it has been easier for me to dream about my goals and achieve those.
You hail from the economic middle class – with your father being a priest, and your mother, a homemaker. Given that fencing is a very expensive sport, have you faced financial challenges?
The first problem I faced in fencing was the financial problem. When I wanted to go to the tournaments, even in the domestic competitions, you have to pay an entry fee. Everything was difficult at the beginning. This sport is expensive. You need to buy equipment, and when I started to go out for international competitions, it was not financed by sources like the government or private organisations.
It was really hard, but I also wanted to achieve something. My parents, especially my mother decided that we will either dedicate our 100 per cent to the sport, or quit. They supported me a lot financially and encouraged me to try until the end, even though it was very difficult in the beginning stages.
Sometimes, I went to competitions by buying my tickets at the last minute, and arriving just one day before the event. Then, my parents would send me money to use for the duration of my stay at the tournament.
Has fencing’s low popularity in India ever been a deterrent to your passion and ambition?
We have to understand that in a country like India, and even in other countries where fencing is at a developing stage, we don’t have a proper system. We don’t know how to plan for a competition, or how to get a result in a stipulated period.
This is a very new sport to us. Fencing is not a sport where you only have to use your speed. It involves speed, distance, timing, decision-making and smartness. There are many factors involved in fencing, and it takes time to master those.
I know what I want to achieve, and I also know that it will take time. I am aware I will not get popularity and support until I achieve something, but in the end, my dream is to win for India. I am ready to dedicate my life to fencing, and my family is ready to support me. So, I’m not thinking about popularity. I’m just focusing on my goals.
Can India start dreaming of its first Olympics medal in fencing?
Everything is possible in the Olympics. When you qualify to participate in the Olympics, you automatically become a candidate to win a medal. Every athlete prepares very well for the Olympics, because we know what it means. Everyone gives their best effort – mentally, technically and physically – to win the medal.
But on that day, we don’t know what will happen. Everyone gives their 100 per cent, but no one knows who will win the medal. There is an equal opportunity for everyone, and I am going to give my very best in the Paris Olympics. Let’s hope for the best.
You’re now seen as the flag-bearer of Indian fencing. How do you think the nation can improve in this sport?
Firstly, thank you for that. As an athlete, I need to give my level best to produce good results for my sport. As for what we need to work on as a team, we need to make a plan and get a good system. We have to set smaller goals first, before moving on to bigger targets.
We need time for that. It is not easy to arrive at a certain level, we need more experience. Not that it is impossible to make big strides in a short time – it is possible, but we have to work really hard as a team, and be patient.
Have you seen any changes in the Indian fencing circuit, in recent years?
One thing I could say – everyone has started to dream big. The Indian fencers have gained confidence in doing well in this sport. They have started working hard, with more sincerity, and I want them to continue with that attitude.
After your Asian Championships triumph, the nation will keenly follow whatever you do. What are your immediate next targets?
I have the World Fencing Championships and Asian Games coming up – those are the next two most important competitions. I will try to do my best and win medals in every competition I participate in. But most importantly, I want to keep improving every single day.