Going for the fences

Jaspreet Sahni | Updated on June 29, 2018

Bhavani Devi   -  BHAVANI DEVI

Funding and recognition remain out of reach for non-priority sports like fencing, but Bhavani Devi, the only Indian international fencing gold medallist, is not giving up yet

Mention fencing to an Indian, and you’re mostly likely to be greeted by a blank look. This is unsurprising in a cricket-worshipping country, where the public response to other sports is only result-based. In that light, fencing is far behind in the queue; regardless, the sword-bearing warriors of the sport, such as Chadalavada Anandha Sundhararaman Bhavani Devi, are staunchly building on their slim chances.

Until 2017, Bhavani Devi, the daughter of a Chennai priest, didn’t pop up easily in Google searches. But two years and as many remarkable medals later, the first Indian international fencing gold medallist appears right on top. An added boost came when Devi became the lone fencer to make the cut for the Sports Ministry’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS).

Undoubtedly then, Reykjavik in Iceland now holds a special place in her heart. It was at the Tournoi Satellite Fencing Championship there that Devi won gold in 2017 and silver this year. “Last year’s gold medal definitely was a big achievement in my career, and for fencing too,” she says. “Many people came to know more about the sport. The government recognised our progress and increased funds to the Fencing Association of India. It has definitely raised their confidence in me.” The achievement also cleared a major stumbling block for Devi — her financial worries were put to rest after her selection to TOPS, and the GoSports Foundation extended its association for another year.

Devi competes in the ‘sabre’ discipline of the sport, with ‘epee’ and ‘foil’ being the other two. All three names refer to the weapons used — the sabre is the smallest — and the target area of contact with the opponent varies for each. Devi’s journey to reach that 6x40 ft aluminium piste (playing area) began serendipitously 15 years ago.

In a bid to escape studies, a ten-year-old Devi gave in her name for a new sport her school introduced that year — fencing. At home, she was the youngest of five siblings. Her parents, C Anandha Sundararaman and Ramani, supported her in whatever way they could. Within five years, she became the under-17 national champion in sabre, thanks to coach Sagar Lagu, who spotted her talent and trained her at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Thalassery, Kerala. Her training and financial needs grew from that point on. It was the then Tamil Nadu chief minister, the late Jayalalithaa, who answered Devi’s appeal for aid to travel to Korea for the 2008 Asian Championship.

International exposure and better training earned Devi podium finishes, beginning with the bronze medal in the team event at the 2009 Junior Commonwealth Championship. She went on to win an individual bronze and team silver in the 2012 edition of the same tournament. The back-to-back silver medals at the 2014 and 2015 under-23 Youth Asian Championship established Devi in the fencing arena and the Tamil Nadu government stepped forward to include her in the Mission Olympics Elite Athlete Scheme. To get to the next level, Devi hired the services of international coach Nicola Zanetti. “He is my personal coach and has made a big difference in my performance and results. He adjusted my movements, ensuring more control in speed and distance,” she explains.

But such expert advice does not come cheap, so the entry into TOPS came as a big relief to her. “My coach’s fee is being paid through TOPS or other sources like the Tamil Nadu government or the GoSports Foundation. They have supported my training in Italy and also provided funding for my competitions. It has helped me stay focused on improving my performance,” she says.

Her next destination is the Asian Games in Indonesia, where a medal will put her name in history books. “I am able to understand the game better than last year. We are working hard each day to get better and better,” she says. Asked whether any private sponsors have woken up to the sport after her recent achievements, she answers in the negative.

“Fencing received more support from the government only in the past couple of years. We need a lot of international exposure for the athletes and coaches. Consistent results will come only with time and experience,” she says.

A medal for her at the Asiad may set the tone for fencing, but in the absence of concrete policy and support, it will always remain a long-drawn battle for India’s non-priority sports.

Jaspreet Sahni is a Delhi-based sports writer

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Published on June 29, 2018
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