The many duels of Bhavani Devi-Sports News , Justnewsday
At Tokyo 2020, Bhavani Devi will become the first fencer ever to represent India at an Olympics. On her route to the Olympics, she ran headfirst into history, was impeded by geography and economics, and hindered in some sense by anatomy.
Right before she seized the greatest opportunity of her life with both hands, Bhavani Devi nearly let it go. In March this year, Bhavani was at her training base in Livorno, gearing up for the Budapest Sabre World Cup—where a good showing would put her on a flight to the Olympics. It was a dream Bhavani had been chasing since she was barely taller than a sabre sword herself.
But circumstances back home had made Bhavani ambivalent about competing in the Hungarian capital. She was seriously considering flying back to India to be at her mother’s bedside as she had been hospitalised with COVID-19 .
Since her childhood, her mother, Ramani, had been the source of Bhavani’s strength—constantly telling her to power through disappointments, repeatedly coaxing her that better days lay ahead. Ramani was Bhavani’s support system. So with Ramani hospitalised in a different continent, Bhavani was in two minds.
Before she could do something hasty in a cloud of emotion, Ramani made a phone call. “I’m fine,” she told her anxious daughter from her hospital bed. “Focus on your game. Take care of Tokyo Olympics qualification. I can manage here. I just need to rest. I’ll be home soon.”
It was just the sort of reassurance that the fencer needed. “It’s difficult to be away from family in these tough situations. But I realised that it’s not only my dream. It’s their dream as well. More than me, they’ve worked a lot,” said Bhavani.
Spurred by the words of her mother, Bhavani didn’t miss her tryst with destiny, driving to Budapest from Livorno with her coach Nicola Zanotti and sports psychologist Angelo Carnemolla. Her qualification for Tokyo 2020 made her the first Indian fencer—ever—to seal a spot at the Olympics.
Drained by the grind of competition and giddy by the promise of competing at the Olympics, Bhavani got into the car with Zanotti and Carnemolla staring at the prospect of another long, exhausting ride back home to Livorno crisscrossing international borders.
“After the Olympic qualification, we were expecting 10 hours of travel by car. After travelling a few miles from Budapest, Bhavani turned to Nicola and asked, ‘Are we training tomorrow morning, coach?’” Carnemolla told Justnewsday. “That’s Bhavani for you.”
Bhavani did not come this far to only get this far.
In 2019, a couple of years before Bhavani qualified for the Olympics, Deepthi Bopaiah got a phonecall at around 2.30 in the morning. It was from Bhavani. The fencer, based in Livorno even in those days, was inconsolable, having just learnt that she had lost her father.
“She broke down on that call. She was very close to her dad. We were initially worried how she would manage to get here by herself given how emotionally hurt she was. When she came, she stayed back in Chennai until she had to for the funeral rituals,” Bopaiah, the Executive Director of GoSports Foundation, which has been supporting Bhavani for many years now, told Justnewsday.
While Bhavani’s mother was a constant physical presence at her competitions in India, her father had been a pillar of emotional strength for the fencer from afar.
“Her father had supported her in the greatest ways possible,” said Swathi Bhojaraj, who is a close friend of Bhavani. “She comes from that typical Tamilian Brahmin family, where girls are expected to learn classical music, classical dance and maybe excel in their studies.”
His demise was a body blow for her. But instead of letting it steer her off course, she channelised her grief into pursuing a dream that she had shared with her parents for years.
“Four days later, she was back in training—trying to chase the Olympics and forget about everything else as her father always used to tell her to do,” said Bopaiah.
“It was not easy for her to go back to her training and pick up from where she had left off. There was some trauma that she was going through,” said Bhojaraj. “But she knew that if she could qualify for the Olympics, it would make him proud.”
Chadalavada Anandha Sundhararaman Bhavani Devi’s fencing career started with a lie. A small, harmless one.
She was still in school, and trying her hand at fencing, a sport that was unknown to most of the country. Her fencing coach at the time wanted to know what her father’s annual income was. It may seem like an odd question to ask, but it was not irrelevant. Bhavani, the daughter of a temple priest and a homemaker, lied.
“We were told that fencing is a very expensive sport and we won’t be able to afford it if we come from a poor family,” recalled Bhavani. “I told him an amount which was more than what my father earned in those days. That’s how I got into the sport. When I started making progress, I understood why the coach had asked me that question.”
Fencing was—and remains—an expensive pursuit.
At this stage of her career, a lot of the expenses are not related to equipment. For her to consistently keep her ranking up, she needs to keep competing regularly on the fencing circuit, where a majority of events happen in Europe.
“At the start, I didn’t know if it was important to go for all competitions. I didn’t want to miss out on anything. Even when I would have injuries, I would still compete in tournaments. I know it’s wrong, but I would do it to get some points and improve my ranking,” she said.
Her training base in Livorno, while keeping her away from her family for months at a stretch, helps her manoeuvre around the circuit without taking too many cross-continental flights, besides also getting consistent training against quality sparring partners.
But in the early days of her career, Bhavani would often train with bamboo sticks instead of blades. Swords were a luxury, to be used only in competitions. The decision was both monetary and logistical, for back in those days acquiring a blade in India was not easy.
“If we broke a blade, we couldn’t afford to buy a new one, nor was it easy to procure one because it would have to be imported from other countries,” said Bhavani.
In those early days, Bhavani was given a reason to second-guess her decision at every move. The more serious she got about the sport, the louder the chorus of naysayers grew. When she started taking fencing seriously enough to dream about making it to the Olympics someday, Bhavani would constantly be told that she wouldn’t get anywhere in the sport. Some even outright told her that as a woman she should just focus on getting a job instead of fencing.
“From the time I took up this sport seriously, I’ve always had to parry questions. People would ask why I was wasting my time. Those days, it was very difficult for me. I would lose a lot. I didn’t qualify for the Rio Olympics,” she said.
When the wins started to come, the doubts morphed. “If I win a medal, people think fencing is very easy. If I lose, the mindset is that it is not possible for Indians to win in this sport. It’s always negative. Always about what can go wrong. That would hurt a lot.”
“The first 10 years were a real struggle,” added Ramani, who spent many days when Bhavani was younger fretting about her safety. “As a mother, I was always worried about the safety of Bhavani because she was so young when she started travelling to different countries for competitions. We would have extended family members and neighbours asking why we were sending Bhavani alone for competitions.”
Even winning, in those early days, came with strings attached. Their humble family background meant that they needed to borrow money to finance Bhavani’s blossoming career. Bhavani turned to crowdfunding. Ramani pawned off her jewellery to fund her daughter’s career.
“They had loans taken from neighbours. Half the time when she used to win an award, the money used to go to repay the loan. I know that they’ve had really bad days,” said Bopaiah.
Sometime around 2015, Bhavani was contemplating leaving the sport. In those days, she would train at the Sports Authority of India’s Thalassery centre.
Meanwhile, a few hundred kilometres away, in Bengaluru, the GoSports Foundation was trying to convince Indian cricket legend Rahul Dravid to come on board for a unique mentorship program for athletes. Dravid was convinced, but he had a condition: he wanted the foundation to pick up athletes from sports which were not mainstream in India and had more girls competing than boys.
That’s how the Rahul Dravid Athlete Mentorship Program came into being. The program currently supports Tokyo 2020-bound rifle shooter Anjum Moudgil, gymnasts like Rio Olympian Dipa Karmakar, Meghana Reddy, Aruna Reddy, and Rakesh Patra, badminton players like World Championship bronze medallist B Sai Praneeth, and Kidambi Srikanth besides Bhavani.
Bhavani getting selected for the program was also fortuitous. Her close friend, Bhojaraj, applied on her behalf. Bhojaraj and Bhavani started their fencing careers as competitors, finding each other across the piste in the sub-junior national fencing championships, then the junior and finally the senior nationals. Along the way, they became close friends even as Bhojaraj switched lanes to pursue a career in law. She found out about the scholarship only because she had interned at the law office of Nandan Kamath, who is a Managing Trustee at the GoSports Foundation. While Bhavani trained, Bhojaraj helped bolster her application for the scholarship.
Even when Bhavani was selected for the interview round after multiple rounds of vetting, she was certain she wouldn’t make the cut. “When I got the call for the interview in Chennai, I said I will go for it, but I never thought I would get it. I decided that if I don’t get the scholarship, I will stay back home (in Chennai) and stop fencing,” Bhavani had told Justnewsday last year.
As it turned out, Bhavani made the cut. Soon after, she moved to Livorno to train under Zanotti.
While the fencer has not had the chance to have a one-on-one session with the cricket legend, she has had the opportunity to pick the brains of another irreplaceable fixture of India’s sporting pantheon: Abhinav Bindra.
Bindra, India’s only individual Olympic gold medallist to date, used to be on GoSports’ advisory board a few years back.
Bhavani and Bindra had a long talk about sacrifices. And choices.
“Abhinav’s been very helpful in Bhavani’s journey,” said Bopaiah. “She was very inspired by the fact that he was a gold medallist. She wanted to understand the pursuit that Abhinav had gone through to get to his medal. Their conversation was about how difficult it’s going to be. He told her that you may lose a lot before you get what you want.”
Right after she had qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, Bhavani returned home to a chorus of celebratory felicitations and a couple of virtual press conferences. But rather than being swayed by the adulation, in her mind she was certain of one thing: this is just the start.
During press conferences and media interactions, there are very few answers that Bhavani gives where she doesn’t end up thanking someone. She frequently uses the phrase ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ when talking about her journey.
While answering a question about her struggles at a press conference, she digresses and ends up thanking the Indian diaspora in USA which housed her when she was training at the Oregon Fencing Alliance for a brief period in 2014.
“She’s just a very grateful athlete,” Bopaiah pointed out. “She will acknowledge everyone’s support. In her head she doesn’t think that she’s done this on her own, which tends to happen with a lot of athletes as soon as they achieve something. Her grounding and humility are what stand out.”
In the absence of a sparring partner in the early months of national lockdown, a kitbag—propped up on bricks and with a fencing mask on top—became her sparring partner. The hard floor of the terrace of her building became her piste. Her coach, Zanotti, observed from Italy via video calling apps.
“This is not a new idea for me. When I started fencing, we did not have much equipment in Chennai. So, we would place a fencing mask on the wall and do target training,” Bhavani had told Justnewsday last year. “Using the bag (is a new idea), because this time I used a long kitbag. Back then we would use only the wall.”
The lockdown came at the most inopportune time for Bhavani, who was within touching distance of qualifying for Tokyo. She was preparing for a tournament in Belgium when the decision was made that she should return to India. She reached India just days before the country’s air routes were shut down indefinitely.
In those early days of the national lockdown, Bhavani spent her time recuperating from a back injury, maintaining her fitness levels, and working on her foot speed.
Training on her terrace was a scary prospect with more and more cases being reported in her neighbourhood and so little being known then of how the virus spread and affected people.
“There was an imminent danger to her health. But she managed to find a way to train,” said Bhojaraj, who, having seen Bhavani’s life from as close range as possible, rattles off vignette after vignette from her life. “Every single decision she makes in her life is influenced by her larger goal. She does not think about things like immediate happiness, but she thinks about the bigger picture.”
As her coach Zanotti told Justnewsday, “Bhavani is a very determined person. This is her best quality which gets her to reach the goals she has fixed.”
Zanotti gives the example of the 2019 World Championships in Budapest, where Bhavani reached the last-16 round. “She fenced very well during the whole competition, even beating strong fencers with more experience than her. It was her attitude which allow Bhavani to enter the top 16 at the world championships.”
The port city of Livorno, nestled in the lap of the luxuriously picturesque Tuscany, has been Bhavani’s training base for a few years now. The tourism hubs of Pisa and Florence are not too far away. Just as the rest of the Tuscan countryside, there is much old-world beauty in the city to be admired.
Bhavani though is immune to the city’s charms. Rather than taking in the sights, Bhavani chooses to spend her time cooped up at her house in Livorno. “My coach often scolds me about this,” Bhavani admitted. “Getting to the Olympics was my dream, so I was very focussed on it all these years. I was a little hard on myself in restricting myself from doing touristy things on my days off. I usually take complete rest when I don’t have training.”
“Her life in Livorno is that of a professional athlete who has moved to another continent with a very precise objective: training, training, learning, learning. In Livorno, during the morning and the afternoon, she is in the gym and in the evening she is home, because the next morning she has to train,” said Carnemolla, her sports psychologist.
Livorno is also a city steeped in Italian fencing history. It’s the city which gave the world Nedo Nadi, Italy’s first poster boy in fencing in the early 1900s before the Mangiarotti family captured the imagination of the sport. The Circolo Scherma Fides, the club where Bhavani trains, was set up by the Nadis.
The bust of Nedo’s father Giuseppe Nadi, better known as Beppe Nadi, and family photographs of the Nadis greet her everyday as she walks in to train, a reminder of the deep history of the sport in Italy. It’s this river of accumulated knowledge from which India’s fencing trailblazer has been drinking for just under half a decade.
The sport has long been the preserve of the Europeans. Fencing argot is full of references to the ‘Spanish School of Fencing’, the ‘German School of Fencing’, the ‘Italian School of Fencing’ and the ‘French School of Fencing’ and so on. Just as multiple European nations stake their claim over having invented the sport, each powerhouse of the sport has a subtle style it brings to the piste.
While Bhavani said the Italian style of fencing is very tactical, her coach Zanotti preferred to look at it more artistically.
“In Italy, we do not teach a single fencing style, every club has its own. The best characteristic of the Italians is the fantasy (their imagination), so Italians don’t fence in the same way. It makes it difficult for opponents to adapt.”
“Personally, I think that since the 1970s, there has been so much borrowing of successful techniques that the ‘schools’ now are pretty much alike,” argued George Masin, a renowned fencing historian, who is based in USA.
Masin added that countries like France and Italy have probably had the “greatest overall impact on fencing, especially during the early 1900s.”
“The sport of fencing has changed greatly over the years. Especially since the 1970s, it has become more physically demanding. A fencer nowadays who fenced exactly like the Nadis or Mangiarottis did would not be successful,” Masin told Justnewsday in an email on being asked about the influence of past masters like Nadis and Mangiarottis on current Italian fencers. “The benefit that they gave fencing was the publicity that they gave the sport and the inspiration that their success gives to modern fencers.”
For a sport that offers 36 medals at the Olympics, and 48 medals at the Asian Games—owing to the lack of bronze medal playoffs—India’s interest in fencing only piqued in 1987, when the Sports Authority of India started their ambitious Special Area Games Scheme. Under the scheme, talented youngsters from rural regions of the country, particularly those who were already groomed in indigenous sports, would be tapped.
Fencing has been on the Olympic roster since the first edition of the modern Games in 1896 and the Asian Games program since Tehran 1974. Besides its deep history of sword-fighting heroes like Chhatrapati Shivaji and Rani Laxmi Bai, traditional Indian sports like the Manipuri discipline of thang ta and Kerala’s kalaripayattu kept the fire burning for the discipline.
But even at the Asian Games held in New Delhi in 1982, India did not have a fencer competing. While fencing camps were intermittently held under coaches brought in from Russia and Ukraine, it wasn’t until the 2006 Asian Games that the first Indian fencers—Ruchi Trikha and Karanjit Kaur—qualified for the continental showpiece event.
While fencing has always been part of the Olympic program, it was only at Athens 2004 that women’s individual sabre was included.
Estel Timofte, a Research Coordinator with The Olympic Studies Centre, told Justnewsday that while the first Asian fencer at the Olympics—Iran’s Ferydoun Malkom in men’s epee individual event—competed at Paris 1900, it was only 84 years later at Los Angeles that an Asian fencer won a medal at the Games (Chinese foil fencer Luan Jujie). Timofte said that foil, and then epee, are disciplines in which Asians have won the most medals to date.
Masin, the fencing historian, pointed out that Fencing World Championships have been held since 1921, but no non-European fencer won an individual medal at a World Championship until 1963 when South Africa’s Brunhilde Berger won silver in the junior women’s foil event.
It was only in 1981 when China’s Jujie won the first medal by a non-European fencer at a Senior World Championship in foil. Chinese fencers started winning medals on a regular basis in 1989 while South Korea won its first individual medals at the World’s in 1994 with Japan its first medal in 2000. Other Asian countries like Iran, Hong Kong, Singapore have also been winning medals since the 1990s, added Masin.
“The governing body of fencing and the major fencing countries did not do much active promotion of fencing outside of Europe until the 1990s. The World Championships, World Cups, and Grand Prix competitions were rarely held outside of Europe. A contributing factor was that not many countries had the amount of top-quality equipment necessary to hold these competitions,” he said. “Around 1990, when the International Olympic Committee was looking to add some sports to the Olympics, it realised that it would not be possible to do this without reducing or eliminating some of the sports already in the Olympics. So, they announced that ‘regional’ sports were being evaluated for elimination and sports like baseball and softball were dropped.
“It was then that fencing realised that it had to reduce its European dominance and make the sport more international if it wanted to stay on the Olympic program.”
The FIE, the international governing body for fencing, then tweaked the system used to give fencers a world ranking to require participation in non-European World Cups.
“This meant that the top European fencers had to compete in non-European competitions which allowed the latter to see what they needed to improve. The qualification criteria for the Olympics were changed to guarantee that some fencers from outside Europe would qualify.”
The break-up of Soviet Union, Masin added, also caused many top Eastern European fencing coaches to find jobs abroad. The impact of this has been seen in other countries like the United States, he said.
Fencing is a sport that clings on to its traditions, and rituals. Fencers wear white because before the sport went electronic, the tips of blades would have cotton swabs dipped in colour to understand who had scored. Fencers still salute the crowd and their opponents because that’s the way it was done centuries ago when men duelled over their honour. Some even believe that the narrow fencing piste was invented to replicate duelling in tight castle corridors.
It is in this sport where Bhavani is the ultimate outsider.
“In India, fencing is a new sport,” said Bhavani. “But Italians have been fencing for hundreds of years. For us to arrive at their level, we have to put in more than double the effort than other advanced countries. Sometimes I do three sessions, sometimes I train on Saturdays. I had to put in double the efforts which is why I’ve even made it to the Olympics.”
In the few blinks of an eye it’s done. Points in fencing can be awarded in seconds. Matches can get decided in a matter of minutes. Sabre fencing is the fastest among all three fencing disciplines, each point an explosion of slashing-thrusting moves and counter-moves, tactics and split-second decisions.
It was the speed of the event that drew Bhavani to it. On the piste, though, she says that it feels like time slows down.
“A fencer who’s on the piste can feel and imagine action in slow motion,” she said.
Unlike boxing or wrestling, fencing has no weight classes. However, there are a few simple, and practical, truths about the sport. The taller you are, the better your reach, thanks to a longer lunge and arm length. The shorter and skinnier you are, the nimbler and swifter you are on the narrow piste.
In sabre fencing, where the target area is just the region above the waist, being shorter doesn’t come with the added advantages that an epee fencer might have, since in epee points are awarded for a touch at any part of the opponent’s body.
Ukrainian Olga Kharlan, the current World No 1 in sabre who has two Olympic and seven World Championship medals, is 5’6” tall. Russia’s Sofya Velikaya, the No 2 ranked women’s individual sabre fencer with two Olympic silvers, six World Championship medals, and 16 World Cup titles, is 5’7”.
World No 3 Manon Brunet is 5’6”, No 4 Yaqi Shao is 5’10”, No 5 Anna Marton is 5’9”.
Bhavani, on the other hand, is 5’3” tall.
“Height, of course, is an advantage in fencing but it is not everything! She’s very good from the physical point of view, she is a good athlete and this allows her to compete with the stronger fencers,” Bhavani’s coach Zanotti told Justnewsday while adding that Bhavani has a good grasp of everything else that a fencer has to do. “She understands very well these things so she can fence with everybody.”
The Ukrainian sabre fencer Olga Kharlan has a Barbie doll fashioned after her. The rivalry between Russian sabre practioners Sofya Velikaya and Yana Egorian is said to have inspired a Russian sports flick called ‘On the Edge’. American sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad has been hailed as a barrier-breaker in her home country after becoming the first American athlete, five years ago at Rio 2016, to compete at the Olympics with a hijab.
By qualifying for Tokyo 2020, Bhavani made the sport of fencing take notice of a country of 1.3 billion, and the world’s second-most populous country pay attention to a sport which despite having been at every edition of the modern Olympics, never caught the fancy of Indians.
“I’m looking forward to competing at the Olympics. This will be the first time most Indians will watch fencing. And they will probably watch me fencing for the first time as well,” said Bhavani.
“Bhavani has been a shining beacon of hope for India in the sport of fencing… This is like a miracle for us,” said Rajeev Mehta, who besides heading the Fencing Association of India is also the Secretary General for the Indian Olympic Association. Mehta went on to say that he hoped Bhavani would go on to medal at Tokyo 2020, emphasising how quickly expectations had grown off the fencer. “Bhavani is just the start. We believe that in the next few editions of the Olympics, many more fencers will make the cut.”
Bhavani is used to being the only Indian at events.
At the Orleans World Cup she competed at in November 2019, there were 19 Frenchwomen in the individual sabre event besides double digit challengers from Italy, Hungary, USA, Japan, and South Korea. Even countries such as Venezuela (five fencers), Tunisia (four), and Dominican Republic (four) had a sizeable presence.
At every event Bhavani has competed in since that World Cup in France—the Salt Lake World Cup in December 2019, the Montreal Grand Prix in January 2020 and the Athens World Cup in March 2020—she has been the sole Indian in the fray.
But at the Budapest World Cup in March this year, where she sealed qualification for Tokyo 2020, Bhavani was accompanied by two more competitors: Diana Devi Thingujam, then World No 205, and Vedika Khushi Ravana, then World No 401.
“Earlier, I used to travel alone for competitions. Athletes and coaches would often point out how I was the only Indian on the circuit and that too coach-less. I didn’t feel they had the same respect for me. But now I feel a sense of respect towards me from all the top fencers. I feel my going to the Olympics is not just a win for me, it’s also a victory for the Indian fencing fraternity,” said Bhavani, who will spend her last few weeks in the lead up to the Olympics training with the Italian national team.
While the Olympics will be a different level, Bhavani isn’t overawed. As she pointed out, at the World Cups and Grand Prix events she competes in, there are usually anywhere between 150 to 200 challengers. At the Olympics, since women’s individual sabre was introduced at Athens 2004, there have never been more than 39 competitors.
While the Olympics will pit her against the crème of the sport, Bhavani is not too worried.
“At the Olympics, I don’t want to put any limits to what I can do,” she said.
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