C.A. Bhavani Devi opted to sign up for a sport just to avoid attending classes at school. But she went on to script history by becoming the first Indian to qualify for the coming Tokyo Olympics in Fencing!
Bhavani Devi has been making waves in the sport — Fencing — which is still in its fledgeling stage in India, and qualifying for the Games has brought her to the world’s attention.
“It was an emotional and special moment. I always dreamt of making it to the Olympics and I am glad that my dream has finally come true. I couldn’t have asked for more. Fencing is the best thing to have happened to me,” says an excited Bhavani. “All the top athletes have congratulated me for my achievement,” she adds, speaking from Livorno, Italy.
Not counting costs
The 27-year-old says she took up fencing in 2004, when she was studying at the Muruga Dhanushkodi Girls School, Chennai, to evade being in the classroom!
“I had to choose from only five sports, and by the time my turn came, the choice was only fencing,” smiles the MBA graduate, who has specialised in the Sabre.
Fencing is a costly sport, and after having signed up for it, the first question she was asked was, ‘What is your father’s annual income”? Bhavani was taken aback. “I hail from a middle-class family, so I knew I couldn’t afford the sport, but I wanted to get trained, so I lied, exaggerating my father’s income,” she reveals.
Initially, she struggled to buy even one fencing sword.
“I realised that the game was beyond the reach of commoners. I used to practice with bamboo sticks,” she recalls, adding that the extensive travelling and training that was needed added to her financial woes. She suffered losses at events initially, but the setbacks only made her more determined to win, and make a career of this niche sport.
Progress, slow but sure
The initial 10 years were full of struggle. But after putting up a spirited performance, Bhavani started getting sponsors. Even while her detractors constantly criticised her, she steadfastly pursued the combat sport.
“People used to tell me that since I am a girl I should choose a 9-6 job instead of sports, particularly fencing. They asked me why I was wasting money and time on such a niche sport. Our neighbours used to comment on my mother permitting me to travel alone, and she would get upset,” she recounts.
Bhavani, who won Bronze in the Asian Fencing Championships in Mongolia (2015), says, “When I won a medal in fencing, people thought it was very easy to win. That hurt me a lot. The more I heard such talk the more I used to push myself because I know fencing is new to India, and that it takes time for people to understand it. So I kept on training hard, and I am glad that I did so.”
Bhavani became India’s first international gold medallist in fencing at the Women’s World Cup satellite tournament, Iceland.
A source of joy
Since then, Bhavani has won several medals at international competitions, She says training in other countries and playing with top athletes showed her how they handled both success and failure.
“All this broadened my scope and improved my game. Not wanting to miss out on any tourney, at times I even played with injuries to earn some points. It was a very challenging journey,” says the National champion, who says fencing has given her both joy and strength.
“I believed in myself and the sport. So I didn’t want to have any regrets about not trying hard enough, or not giving my best,” she shares.
A shout-out for the family
On a personal front, her family is everything to Bhavani. She attributes her success not only to her coaches, sponsors, and her own hard work, but also to her parents, the late Anandha Sundharam and Ramani.
“My mother constantly kept me motivated and focussed,” she says, adding, “The sacrifices my family made have only made me determined to give my best.”
Bhavani has a Telugu connect. Her father was born in Samalkot town in East Godavari in Andhra Pradesh. Having worked in Kakinada and Hyderabad, he eventually shifted to Chennai. His family still lives at Samalkot. When he passed away in October 2019, Bhavani was shattered. But she was able to gather strength and move on. Her focus is now on the Olympics. She will soon start her preparations.
Bhavani is glad that the sport is getting recognition in India. She feels if Government continues to promote the sport, great results can be achieved.