Bhavani Devi: Competing at the highest level entails immense sacrifices

After a crushing loss at the World Championships, C. A. Bhavani Devi is happy to have held on to her crown at the Commonwealth Championships. It has given her a good reason to enjoy her break after a relentless schedule of competitions and training.

Bhavani Devi competes in the Olympic Games in Tokyo in July, 2021. Devi was the first Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics, bowing out in the second round to World No. 3 Manon Brunet.

Bhavani Devi competes in the Olympic Games in Tokyo in July, 2021. Devi was the first Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics, bowing out in the second round to World No. 3 Manon Brunet. | Photo Credit: AFP

After a crushing loss at the World Championships, C. A. Bhavani Devi is happy to have held on to her crown at the Commonwealth Championships. It has given her a good reason to enjoy her break after a relentless schedule of competitions and training.

It has been eight months since C. A. Bhavani Devi left home for the early part of the fencing season. In these hectic months — she participated in more than 10 international competitions — she suffered a crushing loss and an exhilarating victory within weeks of each other.

It’s been a roller-coaster ride. “Nothing my mother’s sambhar rice and potato fry can’t fix,” she says.

Sportstar managed to catch up with the sabre fencer right before her shopping trip at the Express Avenue Mall in Chennai. The 28-year-old is in the city for just two weeks amid a rigorous training and competition schedule.

Even during her downtime, her favourite haunt is her gym (in Nungambakkam). But this time, she deserved a shopping spree after successfully defending her Commonwealth Championship title in London. That gold medal also lessened the pain of a second-round loss in the World Championships a little over a month ago — a close 12-15 defeat to eighth seed Larissa Eifler of Germany.

“I could have definitely done better at the Worlds in Cairo. The result was not satisfying. The problem is sometimes I am not mentally that smart, the pressure gets to me, and this is why I end up with underwhelming results in many competitions. I still have a long way to go in controlling pressure rather than letting it happen the other way around,” Bhavani explains.

She says motivation was hard to find for the days following that early exit.

“The night after a competition is definitely very hard, and sometimes, I can’t sleep; I cry all night. There have been times when I’ve just been low for a week. I can’t get much done or drag myself to do anything else, it’s hard to come out of dealing with a loss, when you’re trying something and it’s not happening. But one has to go at it, again and again,” she says.

The gold medal in London — she beat second-seeded Veronika Vasileva 15-10 in the senior women’s final — was satisfying because Bhavani had harder mental battles to overcome. “Competition is competition. You cannot go to a competition thinking you can win easily. You need to show that you can,” Bhavani explains.

The speed involved in her discipline keeps her and her competitors on their toes. The fencer who is faster and has better reflexes and presence of mind in registering touches against the opponent wins.

“Moreover, we had less training after the World Championship because we went into an off-season and then Commonwealth Championships happened. At the end of it, clubs and other spaces were closed so I ended up working with my coach on my fitness and footwork. More than anything, I wanted to win the gold back. It is important for me and for fencing in India,” Bhavani says.

In the spotlight

Since becoming the first Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympic Games, Bhavani has become the face of the sport in India. She understands that with her fame comes responsibilities.

“Earlier, even the Commonwealth level was hard for Indian fencers. Today, we’re calling this easy. We didn’t win any medals in senior competitions, but right now we are. We are developing slowly and as we compete, we’ll keep getting better. When we participate somewhere, there is a responsibility to show people back in India that we can win, to show the government and the public how we are repaying their support and encourage them to keep supporting us,” she says.

Well-deserved break: Bhavani Devi with her mother. Home-cooked food and quality time with family will recharge her batteries for now before she embarks on her lonely trek to trainings and competitions.

Well-deserved break: Bhavani Devi with her mother. Home-cooked food and quality time with family will recharge her batteries for now before she embarks on her lonely trek to trainings and competitions. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The public attention and scrutiny does not feel as harsh for Bhavani given how niche the sport had been until a few years ago. Therefore, the spotlight, even during a loss, feels like a privilege. It is a fitting culmination of more than a decade of hard work. Bhavani hopes that those who follow fencing learn to see the flip-side of a fencer’s life too.

“I hope people understand that athletes don’t compete to lose. Everyone goes to a competition hoping to win or get the best possible result. Things may come in the way of those goals sometimes; we may not be physically up to it or be mentally ready but this is part of the game.

“Competing at the highest level comes with its sacrifices. We’re away from home and family, our lives revolve around training and there is a fair amount of risk in being a sportsperson. Don’t get me wrong, we love the lives we lead and live to train. But no one is wasting their lives taking these risks. The recognition does not cover the hard work of the last 10-12 years. We should tell all the people about all the things happening in sports, not just about winning and losing. Stories of athletes who don’t find success are as important as the stories of those who do. This will help someone understand what athletes go through and how hard they work and what they are and should be supported for,” she explains.

Moving on from defeats

Much has changed for Bhavani since her career-defining Olympic campaign. She has since changed coaches, parting ways with Italian coach Nicola Zanotti and joining forces with legendary French fencer Christian Bauer. The transition has been smooth as Zanotti has worked with Bauer as his assistant before.

“Bauer is definitely more experienced than my previous coach. Both are different, but I really like both of them and enjoy a good relationship with them. I still stay in touch with Zanotti.

Training is rigorous under Bauer, almost like a school. We start before 9am and it goes on till about 3pm. We have intense drills for different parts of sabre – footwork, fleches (short runs taken at the opponent), attacks and other elements,” Bhavani explains.

Thrust into prominence: Bhavani Devi has become the face of fencing in India. She understands that with her fame comes responsibilities.

Thrust into prominence: Bhavani Devi has become the face of fencing in India. She understands that with her fame comes responsibilities. | Photo Credit: R. RAVINDRAN

Perhaps the most important aspect of this new coaching relationship is resistance to disappointment. Bhavani says Bauer does not encourage wallowing in sadness after a loss.

“Whenever I speak with my coach, more so after a loss, he says, ‘Bhavani, you can definitely do much better, but you need to work on your mental aspect. You have all the abilities of a top fencer, move on from the loss.’ It gets hard for me but he talks me through it and tries to get me out of fixating on defeat,” she says.

Much of Bhavani’s time in training is solitary. She travels by herself, goes through training by herself, lives alone, and cooks her own meals (she claims she makes decent pasta). All this comes with loneliness, which she hopes to do away with by the time the Paris Games come along.

“India sent over 12 fencers (women) to the World Championships; that’s a start. From people asking me what fencing was and why ‘I was wasting my time with it’ to seeing Khelo Games take up fencing and a women’s league in India, so much has changed. Talent will come through these platforms,” she says.

Need for exposure

India is still lagging behind in terms of coaching and facilities for fencers and Bhavani, drawing from her own experiences of training in Europe, feels exposure is key to improve standards.

“Like we do in other sports, we need to open up to different methods and approaches in different countries. We need to see other countries and work with them to improve the expertise of our players and coaches,” she adds.

Bhavani returns to active competition in a few weeks. She will participate in a few Grands Prix, and the Olympic qualification will start later this year. For the time being, though, home food and quality time with mum will recharge her batteries for another round of marathon.

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