Fencer Bhavani Devi makes history, qualifies for Olympics

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She wears a see-through, mesh tri-colour on her full-face masked helmet. She is also deeply influenced by the tale of Queen Velu Nachiyar, or Veeramangai, the ruler of Sivaganga who is supposed to have waged the first war of freedom on the British in 1770s.

But what Chadalavada Anandha Sundhararamana Bhavani Devi, India’s first ever fencer to qualify for the Olympics, has managed in the modern world of competitive sport, is a pioneering toe-hold into what is considered one of the most elite disciplines.

Fencing with its regal sporting origins in Europe, remains the preserve of the first world – with a stranglehold of the continent’s sporting superpowers in this sport being very tight. China, Japan and Korea have broken through in the discipline that carries a staggering 36 medals and is hence pushed by every country to amp up the medal placings.

But for an Indian to dream of cracking those highest of echelons of Olympic sport – when equipment is niche, coaching is specialised, the sport isn’t particularly easy to just lace up shoes and pick up – this qualification points to Bhavani’s individual endeavour and her blazing ambition.

There was never a doubt that Bhavani had the speed for sabre, the fastest of the sword events. Italian coach Nicolo Zanotti has spoken earlier of her ability to grasp the nuances while keeping up the speed of movements.

But for someone hailing from a middle-class family in Chennai’s Washermenpet, Olympics was like reaching the moon when she took up the sport in her school at age 9. Youngest of four children, born to an always encouraging homemaker mother and a father who was a priest, but gorged on literary texts in multiple languages, Bhavani was self-motivated throughout her pathbreaking journey.

Staying away from home – first in Thalassery in Kerala as a junior, and later at Livorno in Italy – the 27-year-old overcame everything from fight of darkness to blending into local culture to learn a sport she had come to love and had started getting very good at.

There were speed bumps at every juncture – sometimes the Indian team wasn’t sent to the Asian Games, at other times, refereeing was biased in Europe.

When the world went into lockdown, Bhavani was on the brink of qualification – but with an anxious eye on rankings, eyeing the two Asian spots available. It was also evident that she would be at the mercy of external results, being on the cusp and with tournaments cancelled.

She was one tournament away from qualifying same time last year. But the wait got prolonged with each passing uncertain day. Years of hard work was at stake.

It is in this frame of mind that she travelled to Budapest – all the pandemic restrictions applying to her movements. Hungary wasn’t allowing anyone to fly in, though the fencers could travel in solely for the World Cup.

Bhavani Devi, Bhavani Devi fencing Bhavani recalls being charmed by the equipment — the mask, the jacket, the electrical trail that beeped off tiny lamps. (Photo Courtesy: Bhavani Devi)

Bhavani would lose early, but had a cushioning if the World Championship points. It boiled down to Hungary finishing behind South Korea, to ensure her qualification in a meshed calculation of variables. Bhavani would watch nervously in the arena with her coach.

There was one last continental tournament left but with a cloud of uncertainty on it.

Once Italy defeated hosts Hungary, putting them behind Korea, Bhavani was assured of a spot. She would breathe easy, allow tears to roll down and would choke for words, speaking to her sponsors back home – happy that her lifetime’s dream had been achieved.

It wasn’t just the wait of 25 years before the pandemic, where she lost her biggest motivator, her father in 2019. The pandemic made the wait even more torturous. Go Sports, her funding group, would arrange for training equipment for fitness and sport in the house during the lockdown along with yoga sessions to deal with the anxiety. Then it was time for strength and conditioning once the lockdown eased, and return to Italy for training, expenses borne by the sponsors who did not lose hope through the struggle.

Bhavani’s qualification though, was one woman’s ambition to make it to the Olympics, in a sport she dared to pursue when not many around her did.



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