Bhavani Devi: The Sword Fighter Slaying Odds to Pioneer Fencing
The 25-year-old capped off the 2018 season with a memorable gold medal in the Commonwealth Championships.
The 25-year-old capped off the 2018 season with a memorable gold medal in the Commonwealth Championships.(Photo Courtesy: Turja Sen)

Bhavani Devi: The Sword Fighter Slaying Odds to Pioneer Fencing

It is a pity that you cannot see the grit and the courage on her face, hidden by the wire-meshed mask, when Bhavani Devi steps on to the fencing arena. Her every move with the weapon against the rivals is slaying the odds that she encounters on being the lone Indian in the international fencing circuit.

Even when she takes off her gear, the Chennai girl is mostly an unrecognised, anonymous sporting personality. Unfazed about the lack of popularity of fencing and the steep obstacles, Bhavani is happy to make a difference to the profile of the sport in the country. The 25-year-old capped off the 2018 season with a memorable gold medal in the Commonwealth Championships.

“I always remember what one of my role models, Abhinav Bindra, told me. Do not clutter your mind with external factors but just focus on your performance. There are hardships but my motto is to fight them without complaining about them.”
Bhavani Devi

“At the end of the day, I do not want to offer any excuses and it is my results which matter at the end of the day,’’ says Bhavani, who is now eyeing a busy year ahead as the race for the Tokyo Olympics heats up.

As a youngster starting out in fencing, Bhavani had to take care of her funding to take part in tournaments all over the world as well as finding a coach.

“It was not easy to manage my flight bookings and arrange hotels on a tight budget funded with loans taken by my family. And then there was the small matter of concentrating on my performance against some of the top fencers of the world. But in the long run, this toughened me as a professional.”
Bhavani Devi
Bhavani (centre) achieved her career best world ranking of 36 last year and became the first Indian to win an international fencing tournament.
Bhavani (centre) achieved her career best world ranking of 36 last year and became the first Indian to win an international fencing tournament.
(Photo Courtesy: Turja Sen)

Despite not hitting the headlines, the youngster continued to make steady progress and she was rewarded with financial support from the Tamil Nadu government. GoSports foundation, a non-profit organisation also came to her aid to bolster her training program.

With the funding looking up, Bhavani shifted her training base to Italy and recruited a reputed Italian coach Nicolla Zanotti. For a sport known for razor sharp reflexes, a mental conditioning coach was also on board for Team Bhavani and the efforts began to produce results.

Bhavani achieved her career best world ranking of 36 last year and became the first Indian to win an international fencing tournament when she triumphed at the Tournoi World Cup Satellite Fencing Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Thanks to Bhavani’s improved showing, the Union Sports Ministry moved fencing from ‘other sports category’ to general category which meant there was funding available for the fencers to take part in various international meets.

But there were slips ups as well when Bhavani failed to make it to the quarter-finals of the Asian Championships and her world rankings suffered.

“This was a big setback because it meant I could not make the cut for the Asian Games. Probably this heartbreak helped me to make a strong comeback in the Commonwealth Championship.”
Bhavani Devi

A month long break in the fencing calendar after the Commonwealth Championship allowed Bhavani to take her MBA examinations and catch up on her matinee idol Rajinikant’s Tamil blockbuster 2.0.

“My greatest dream now is to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics because no fencer from India has ever represented the country in the Olympics. Just the sheer presence of a fencer will give a tremendous boost to the profile of the sport in the country.”
Bhavani Devi

But the road to Tokyo will not be easy as she has to improve her rankings from the current 60 to around top 30 by April 2020. Her first step towards the upward climb will be the World Cup in Salt Lake City next month. Another big tournament for her in 2019 will be the Asian Championship in Tokyo. Two top ranked fencers from Asia and Oceania region gain automatic entry to the Olympics.

Bhavani Devi (left) at the 29th Summer Universiade Taipei in 2017.
Bhavani Devi (left) at the 29th Summer Universiade Taipei in 2017.
(Photo Courtesy: Turja Sen)

Olympics maybe the sole driving force for Bhavani now but it was hardly the motivation when she opted for the sport in her early teens.

“Fencing was introduced in our school and I was completely mesmerised by the weapon. The sword to me symbolised bravado and heroism and I wanted to attain mastery over it.”
Bhavani Devi

A childhood fascination for the sport soon became an obsession and her coaches were floored by her prodigious talent. Despite fencing being frowned upon as an European sport without any history in India, nothing could stop the youngster from pursuing it seriously.

Her hometown of Chennai lacked adequate infrastructure and she was even willing to leave her family to move to Kerala. Her decision was backed by her parents and she took a huge leap of faith to relocate to Thalessary to train at Sports Authority of India.

Here she met her coach and mentor Sagar Lagu who shaped her career.

“Even from her young age, her foot movement and attacking style were treat to watch even at the junior level. She was willing to make all the sacrifices to make it big in the world of fencing.”
Sagar Lagu, Bhavani’s coach and mentor

Bhavani specialises in sabre, a form of fencing considered to be the fastest among the other two types of fencing – epee and foil. Bhavani’s medals at the international stage have already inspired many youngsters to take up fencing. An appearance of an Indian fencer in the Olympics could usher in a revolution. And Bhavani Kumari is the closest to becoming that trailblazer in India.

Basic Guide to Fencing

A fencing bout features a faceoff between two contestants looking to score points by making contacts on the designated target area of the rivals using a weapon resembling a sword.

In the Olympics or a standard international tournament, a bout lasts for nine minutes or until a contestant scores 15 points.

Competitive fencing is classified into three different events based on the type of weapons and scoring.

In foil, a light sword is used which has a flexible rectangular blade. Points are scored only when the tip of the weapon touches the opponent’s torso including back, neck and the groin. Epee involves a heavier sword where points are awarded when the tip of the weapon touches the opponent’s target area which consists of his or her entire body including his hands and legs. In sabre, where a lighter weapon is used, both the blade and the tip of the weapon can be used to score points in a target area extending from the hips to the head.

The tips and blades of the weapons are electrically wired and whenever there is a valid contact on the target area, a buzzer goes off indicating a point.

(The author is a television producer working with different sports networks in India and abroad. He has extensively covered previous editions of Asian Games and Commonwealth Games for both print and television.)

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