Fencing at the Olympics has been as old as the Summer Games itself. And, women fencers started participating at the Olympics in 1924. However, the women’s sabre event was introduced in the Summer Games in 2004 Athens.
However, in all these years, India have not been represented at the quadrennial event in fencing. Credit goes to 27-year-old CAS Bhavani Devi from an orthodox Brahmin family in Chennai for being the first Indian ever to qualify for the Summer Games.
In a sport that has not yet caught on among the masses in India, Bhavani’s qualification for the Tokyo Games in March this year during the World Cup in Budapest, Hungary, has given the sport a boost in the country. She qualified for the Olympics through the Adjusted Official Ranking Method. Bhavani is the lone Indian to have made it to the Olympics.
Bhavani took to fencing at school as a part of the ‘Sports in Schools’ scheme by the then Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa. Having started playing the sport using bamboo sticks, the Chennai fencer who specialises in sabre event, is ranked 42nd in the world after having reached a career-best ranking of 36 in 2016-17.
Born to a priest father and a home-maker mother, Bhavani had to fight all odds to rise in her chosen sport. Not to mention the sacrifices she had to make having chosen a sport that was not as popular as some of the other sports in the country. She knows it is not easy to win a medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, where fencing is scheduled for July 24 to 31 with her individual event slated for July 26. But Bhavani is keen to leave a lasting impression in Tokyo.
Currently training in Italy’s port city of Livorno in western Tuscany, Bhavani is leaving no stone unturned in her quest for glory. She will reach Tokyo on July 20 full of confidence. In an exclusive interview with news18.com amidst her training schedule, Bhavani talks about gaining experience from the Tokyo Games and the ambitions of winning World Championships and Asian Games medals while also being an embodiment of woman power in India.
How are the preparations with Olympics less than two weeks away?
Preparations for the Olympics are going good. Day-by-day, I’m gaining more confidence and motivation through my training sessions.
What are your training schedules like? Do you also have competitions to judge your progress? Why did you choose Italy as a training base?
We train for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. Sometimes, it changes to three hours or even six hours depending upon our coach’s programme. We don’t have any competitions outside, but inside the camp we organise competition-like situations just to have that competition emotion and environment around us. I am training in Livorno, Italy, because I have a good relation and understanding with this coach (Nicola Zanotti) and have good coordination between us that helps me to improve myself as a fencer. It is working well for my performance too.
What does it mean to you being the first-ever, and only, fencer from India at the Olympics?
It makes me feel proud and happy but at the same time I feel more responsible for being an example for future generations to come. Especially for women, I want to prove there is no barrier to achieve our goals when we are determined with our objectives. The only thing I need is the support of my family and society.
What are your expectations at the Olympics and what kind of challenges are ahead of you in your quest for glory?
I feel so happy to be a part of the Olympics. It was my long-time dream. I expect nothing but gaining more experience through this journey. I feel more responsible and proud for being the first fencer from India to qualify for the Olympics. I should always inspire others to take up this sport. Being a woman, I had to face many challenges in my life and those challenges never stopped me from achieving my ambitions. In my tournaments, I want to give my best performance. As long as I play, I wish to bring laurels to my country.
You have often said you will make India proud in Tokyo. Can you elaborate?
No matter if I win or lose, I always learn from the experience. I know my objective and ambitions, and I always focus on how to achieve them. This determination is my key motivation. I will try my best to achieve the best and make India proud.
How has the journey been, coming from an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family and taking to a sport that is still not as popular as others?
It was not an easy journey. I had to face a lot of struggles including financial situations, proper training and sports kits. Yet, I didn’t lose hope and my family always had faith in me. They encouraged me always, acting like a backbone, pushing me to work harder. At times I was tired mentally. A lot of people advised me to change my sports career, saying that fencing is not a sport for women. This was discouraging but it didn’t affect me. I was doing everything alone including arranging travel plans, booking tickets, asking for sponsorship and waiting for hours to meet officials. Somehow, my family always supported me and kept me motivated.
What difference do you see in fencing in India from the time you entered the sport and now when you have made it to the Olympics?
There is a lot of difference from then and now. Initially, there were no proper training centres and even most of the schools didn’t have fencing in their curriculum. But now, there is a lot of improvement in terms of sports and training centres, and even schools started including fencing in their curriculum. This will give more scope for our future generations to take sports, and fencing, as their career.
Has fencing as a sport caught up in India or what needs to be done?
I wish there should be a complete training centre for every sport in every district so that students can take up sports without spending so much of money going outside for training.
Is fencing a sport for the common man in India?
Yes, it is. But earlier, there were very few training academies for fencing in the country. Now, the scenario has changed a lot. Any class of the society can take up this sport; many schools have started including fencing in their curriculum. The government is also providing scholarships and many other concessions for students. I take myself as an example. If you have the will power, are ready to work hard, and are determined with your objectives, no one can stop you from achieving the ultimate in any sport.
Before you qualified for the Olympics, not many were aware of fencing in India. How much has that changed now?
Yes, initially, very few people were aware of fencing in the country. Now-a-days, there are many changes that I am seeing. Everyone knows about this sport. Soon, a lot of people will understand fencing and provide more support and recognition for this sport.
Can you look back on the day when you qualified for Tokyo and the feelings that came with it?
Yes, I was so happy that I couldn’t express my feelings. I was thinking about all the tough situations that I came across and also the good and bad moments. All the sacrifices that my family and I made have paid dividends.
Who are your favourite fencers and why? What do you learn from them?
My favourite fencers…. In fact, there are many – Aldo Montano of Italy (2004 Olympics Games gold in men’s sabre, Mariel Zagunis of USA (2004 and 2008 Olympics individual gold) and Sofia Velikaya from Russia (2016 Rio Olympics team sabre gold medallist). They all are very good fencers. I have learned a lot from seeing their performance; they are very strong when they fence. When they lose or when they win, their mind is calm and focus is stable. They always give me suggestions. Their performances are really very good to watch and I can learn a lot from them.
Who are your role models and how have they inspired you?
I like all sports. All women achievers inspire me a lot. PT Usha, Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, Serena Williams, among others. They empower every woman. They all inspire me a lot.
What are your goals beyond the Tokyo Olympics?
My goals beyond Tokyo – I want to win the World Championships gold medal and Asian Games gold medal for India.