Indian fencer C.A. Bhavani Devi recently rang in her 30th birthday. Birthdays for the Olympian usually either mean being home with her parents and getting pampered by a mother who only gets a few days in a year with her daughter, or being on the road competing.
This year, it was a quiet affair in Bhavani’s apartment in Orleans, France, where she is currently training.
The solitude is not unfamiliar to the sabre fencer who has spent much of her career as one of, or the only Indian, in the competition list. For years, Bhavani carried the mantle of Indian fencing, a tireless effort which saw her become the first Indian ever to represent India in the discipline at the Olympics, in Tokyo. Her ambition has taken her to Europe to train, first in Italy under Nicola Zanetti and then in France, soon after, under Christian Bauer.
“Bauer is a very senior coach and is one of the best in the world,” Bhavani tells Sportstar from France.
“He is also my old coach Zanetti’s senior... so we have immense respect for him and are a bit intimidated too.”
The season has just ended for Bhavani and the work rate Bauer is putting her through is starting to show results. She won the gold in the Commonwealth championships in London in August last year, beating Australian fencer Veronika Vasileva 15-10 in the final to defend her women’s senior individual sabre title (she had won in 2018 too). She followed it up with a bronze in the Asian fencing championship in Wuxi, China, in June, India’s first medal at the continental tournament. En route a podium finish, Bhavani beat the then reigning world champion Misaki Emura 15-10 in the quarterfinal before falling to Uzbekistan’s Zaynab Dayibekova.
“My Olympic tattoo is inside my heart and mind. Thinking about fencing is a constant for me. I know why I wake up everyday and I know what I am resting for everyday.”BHAVANI DEVI
What’s changed from Livorno to Orleans
Bauer has worked on everything from technique to posture and Bhavani’s opening chapter with the Bauer way of fencing was anything but smooth.
“After Tokyo, I moved to France. The training is different, the school of thought, the positions and technique are all very different from Italy where I trained before. It’s easy to understand but to implement it consistently in competitions is quite difficult. Initially, I was losing by small margins and it was hard, but the coach kept pushing me. The efforts seem to be coming together now,” she explains.
What separates the Italian way to the French are position and posture.
“I used to squat more and stay lower in the en garde position (the stationary position before the fencers begin their offensive or defensive movement). Bauer said I didn’t need to do that or stress my legs and hips so much. They changed my position according to my body type. They also changed the sabre’s positions — sometimes I would go too high or too low. So, we’ve worked on my arm position and posture. Then we worked on speed, technique and strategy. Basically, it’s attack and defence but the way it’s done differs from coach to coach,” she adds.
Big occasions have overwhelmed Bhavani from time to time, something Bauer is helping her address in training.
“We do work on mental strength. Yoga also helps me to work on my energy. Meditation is a part of our drill. Our coach gives us tough situations during our training, like restricting us to just one action. These things stress us out, especially when you’re doing it in front of such a big coach,” she says.
While Bhavani is someone who prefers taking challenges one step at a time, her training regimen accounts for the picture too.
“I don’t feel the pressures of age just yet, if anything I am getting stronger and stronger. In our sport, I’ve seen people who are 35, 37 or older who are in prime physical shape. Maybe after a few years, some of the physical work might pinch, but fencing will always stay with you because it comes down to your reflexes. This is why we work on the physical aspects so much so that we’re able to fence longer,” she explains.
“All our work is to aid explosiveness while fencing and to aid stamina and recovery. This will help our reaction time. In sabre, movements are very intense. You need to make quick movements, and come back to en garde position and gear up for the next move. Your body needs to adapt to all that. So we work on strengthening our muscles and bones,” she adds.
While there’s room for fun, games and a healthy dose of dancing, the largely industrial rhythm of training doesn’t allow Bhavani to spend time on much else, something she cherished even when the results were not in her favour. She remembered demanding more training time from coach Bauer after a particularly hard-to-digest result a year ago and said she eats, sleeps and breathes fencing.
“I think fencing is the one sport where we see so many participating nations despite the sport itself not being widely popular. That makes this sport very unique.”BHAVANI DEVI
Two sides of a coin
As one of India’s trailblazers in the sport, Bhavani has found herself in contrasting places throughout her career. There are stages like the Commonwealth championship where she went in as the top seed and had to guard against complacency; then there were platforms like the Asian Championships, Asian Games and the Worlds where she had to fight nerves after being clubbed with some of the biggest names in the sport.
“The Commonwealth championships was tough because you know you can win gold but you’re thinking harder about not doing anything wrong and missing the chance. In Cairo, it was the World Championships (where she crashed out in the round of 64). It is mentally difficult because it is the last competition of the season. It’s a very important tournament for everyone, particularly to accumulate points and improve rankings. Of course, I am disappointed, but that’s what sports is. I know I want to give my 100% every time I compete and I have learnt to take everything in my stride and keep going forward. That’s the hardest thing sometimes: to focus on the silver lining,” she said.
The supporting act
Besides her match strategy and training schedule, the only other thing Bhavani has had to break into a sweat was in mastering her mother’s sambhar recipe – a sharp contrast to life ahead of the Tokyo Olympics when raising funds were also a source of anxiety for the fencer.
“Recently, the mother of Mariel Zagunis (two-time Olympic champion) messaged me, wished me for my birthday and said, ‘I see the government is recognising your efforts and your achievements. You should have gotten it before but I am glad it’s happening now.’ Finance is the basic element of sport, especially one like fencing. We, as athletes, are improving, but to compete internationally, we need to have opportunities like what I have now to keep it going. And money is a necessity there. Athletes should ideally only think about their performance and what they need to do to get better. I am very grateful to the government for being so solid since Tokyo especially; so has the Tamil Nadu government, my employer Tamil Nadu Electricity Board and Go Sports Foundation,” she said.
September marks a new season for the fencer and the vision board will sport a lot of the old checklists, the entry in bold being Olympic qualification.
“The qualification phase (for Paris 2024) has started, and it ends in April. I have to be in the top 2 in Asia or I have to win the zonal qualification tournament in Asia to make it. Currently, I am ranked third in Asia. I need to work on improving that position,” said Bhavani.
The Bauer Academy and some of its illustrious pupils, including two-time Olympic medallist Manon Brunet and three-time World champion Caroline Queroli, among others, keep Bhavani motivated. Bauer’s students welcome his rigorous and relentless pursuit for perfection, even using that to have a healthy competition against each other from time to time.
“Here in the academy for example, we talk about the state of fencing in each other’s nations, any innovations seen in tournaments and inputs to improve our process. For fencers who have had the resources to travel and compete internationally, these are automatic, but I’ve had to cultivate them,” she said.
Staying in the country of the next Olympic Games — France — only pushes Bhavani more. “The idea is to do better than what I managed in Tokyo. I want the Paris Olympics to see some of my best fencing.”
- Rohit Sharma becomes oldest captain to lead India in ODI World Cup match
- IND vs AUS: David Warner becomes fastest to 1000 ODI World Cup runs
- India vs Australia LIVE Score, World Cup 2023: AUS 32/1 (8) Warner, Smith rebuild after IND gets Marsh
- Most runs in ODI World Cup: Full list of leading run-getters in WCs
- Shanghai Masters: Defending champion Medvedev out against Korda