Kolkata: If one thought that fencing is the preserve of Europe, alongwith a handful of Asian sporting superpowers like China, Japan and Korea - India’s Bhavani Devi has just forced you to have second thoughts. The daughter of a temple priest in Tamil Nadu, the 27-year-old has become a major talking point when she became the first-ever Indian in the sport to qualify for the Olympics and will be in action in Tokyo in three months’ time.
The sabre fencer secured a Tokyo 2020 berth at the ongoing Fencing World Cup in Budapest after hosts Hungary lost in the quarterfinals of the team event and Korea marched into the semi-finals on Sunday. That result meant that Bhavani, world No. 45 in her sport, bagged one of the two spots available for Asia & Oceania through the Adjusted Official Ranking (AOR) method at the event. She will be a part of the women’s individual sabre event at the Games.
While it remains to be seen if Tokyo is going to witness what could be the first-ever Games behind closed doors, Chadalavada Anandha Sundhararamana Bhavani Devi has already become a history-maker - much like Deepa Karmakar who became the first gymnast from India to make the cut for the Summer Games in 2016. Karmakar went a step further as she was on the cusp of a podium finish and finished fourth, and Bhavani’s moves in the niche sport will be keenly followed.
Interestingly, she had given it a shot to qualify for Rio itself when following her success at the 2014 Asian Championship, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, had granted financial aid for her to train in the United States. For two years, she criss-crossed the globe, trying to improve her rankings and make the cut for the Olympics but fell agonisingly short.
“I am very disappointed to miss out being part of the Indian team at Rio. In the last two years, I pushed myself alone without proper support and travelled a lot without a proper plan. So, for 2020 I will try not to make the same mistakes and make the right plan to achieve my dream. I am planning to go to Italy to train for a few months,” she said nearly five years back.
A path-breaking moment when she was shorlisted among 15 athletes by ‘Go Sports Foundation’ for the Rahul Dravid Athlete Mentorship Programme, which sent her to Italy to train - and she has finally kept her word.
Born on August 27, 1993 in Chennai in a middle class family, Bhavani’s father had been a temple priest while her mother a homemaker. She studied at Muruga Dhanushkodi Girls Higher Secondary School and then attended St.Joseph’s Engineering College in her hometown.
Bhavani was introduced to one of the least talked about disciplines in India - fencing - at her school when she was in class VI (2003-04). Soon after appearing in Higher Secondary, she joined the Sports Authority of India Centre in Thalassery in Kerala - one of the very few institutions in India with the infra-structure for training in fencing.
The journey started at the international level when she bagged a bronze in the 2009 Commonwealth Championship in Malaysia where she bagged bronze. A number of podium finishes followed in age-group international events and in 2014, she became the first Indian to bag a silver medal at the Under-23 category of Asian Championship in Philippines. Five years later, she became the first Indian to win a gold at the senior Commonwealth Fencing Championship in Canberra in the sabre event in 2019 - her biggest achievement till date.
Can she make her mark in Tokyo? Joydeep Karmakar, an Arjuna awardee who had experienced the agony of a fourth place finish in the 50 metres rifle prone event in 2012 London Olympics, gave a reality check. ‘‘It’s so exciting that more and more of our athletes are entering the big league in such individual disciplines. The fact that she had been training in Italy is a big plus, but let’s also be somewhat realistic in our expectations,’’ he told Gulf News.