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2021 Tokyo Olympics | Meet your Olympian - Bhavani Devi (Fencing)

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Bhavani Devi accidentally took the up the sport during her schooldays


2021 Tokyo Olympics | Meet your Olympian - Bhavani Devi (Fencing)

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sounak mullick


Bhavani Devi created history by becoming the first-ever Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics. However, there’s much more to her story than what meets the eye - from accidentally taking up the sport, overcoming financial struggles to finally finding her footing at the top level.

When popular sports like football, cricket and badminton go for a toss and there’s only swimming, squash, fencing and boxing to choose from, school-kids normally abstain from opting for a discipline that few have heard of. However, for young Bhavani Devi and her classmates, it was a mandatory selection. And when the student residing from Chennai’s Washermanpet area was summoned to pick one, there was only one slot left, that too in fencing.

The turn of events that looked insignificant back then, has materialised into a historic one, several years later. And yet, there was Bhavani Devi with a sword in her hand, with little knowledge of what the universe or fate had in store for her.

Road-bumps surfaced from the word ‘go’ as her trainer took time off the practice sessions to enquire about the financial status of her family. Already into the business and developing an inclination towards the game, Bhavani falsified facts to avoid further questions regarding the topic. Fencing is an expensive sport and deep down she knew that her family would struggle to fund her aspirations. But, that’s a discussion for the upcoming days. During the initial phase, they used to train with bamboo sticks while actual swords, which were imported, were only used for competition.

Slowly she got into the groove but failed to make a mark in her first competitive tournament, while her friends won medals. But, the let-down sparked a motivation that would do wonders for her in the future. She won a bronze in the succeeding competition and things clicked from there. As she progressed leaps and bounds, expenses escalated in the same proportion, which was slowly posing a burden on his father’s pocket, who worked as a priest. Even though the initial phase was seen through, Bhavani’s mother pawned jewellery to provide her top-quality training as she started competing at a professional level.

However, she was no ordinary child, having claimed a gold medal at the 2004 sub-junior national championships, at the age of 11. That was her first major break. By that time, she was training in Bangalore, after which she practised at Chennai’s Nehru Stadium with no real coaching. Subsequently, she shifted her base to the SAI (Sports Authority of India) centre in Thalassery, in Kerala with the backing of his family – that was the ultimate masterstroke. The missing pieces of the puzzles finally fell in place and Bhavani Devi's career was finally set to take off.

Bhavani Devi plies her trade in the sabre category, where players uses a light sword to target the entire body above the waist, except the weapon hand © Twitter

Already stamping authority at the domestic level, Bhavani was all set to conquer alien territories. But, initial hiccups were predominant as she received a ‘black card’ for being late by three minutes at her first international tournament, in Turkey. 

However, she tasted success at the 2009 Commonwealth Championships, claiming a bronze medal. Devi was now actively featuring in various competitions around the world by then, without a coach, but considerable financial backing. She was fortunate enough to have been funded by Tamil Nadu’s political establishments.

In 2014, the fencer plying trade in the sabre category bagged a silver medal at the U23 Asian Championships, becoming the first-ever fencer from India to achieve the feat. She followed with a few more clinical displays in the following year. But, with the 2016 Rio Olympics in sight, Bhavani was on the go, travelling across the world to gain top-quality training and secure a quota for the mega-event. She failed to make the cut eventually. 

However, that was not the end of the road, with her now India’s sole representative in the discipline at the international level and also heavily backed by Go Sports Foundation to make an appearance at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

After years of hard work, her breakthrough was on the cards. It was earlier this year, in the World Cup that Bhavani Devi qualified for the Tokyo Olympics by virtue of the Adjusted Official Ranking (AOR) method, after South Korea marched into the semi-finals of the event. She thus became India’s first-ever fencer to qualify for the Olympics. 

The reception received overnight was glorious, with social media overflowing with congratulatory posts. The surreal feeling was equally cherished by her mother. However, her father, who was instrumental in the journey, could not witness the magical moment, as he passed away in 2019.

But now, the real test begins. Not a country known for its fencing legacy, Bhavani Devi will have her task cut out to make the opportunity count cometh the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. After initial hiccups encountered due to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, her preparations are back to full swing, with the world no.42 shifting her training base to Livorno, Italy. The aspirant recently trained with the Italian national team, in three instalments of one-week programmes.

Considering the Italians are one of the top outfits in the world in the sabre category, the training stint would boost her confidence immensely ahead of the mega-event. July 26th will mark the beginning of the women's individual sabre event at the 2021 Olympics. Mark the date. Indian sports is set to witness a historic moment at the Japanese capital.

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