After her trailblazing run at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Indian fencer C.A. Bhavani Devi uprooted herself from her training base in Italy and threw herself into the strange and wonderful world of the Christian Bauer Academy in Orléans, France. The Zumba and dancing lessons took some getting used to, but, more crucially, she also had to unlearn the Italian style of fencing and mould herself into the French setup.
“My position, how I hold my sabre, how I attack, when I attack, rhythm, the strategical planning, everything is different. When we attack, which distance we attack is different,” Bhavani tells Lounge in an interview. “Both Italy and France, have been champions in this sport for so many years, so they are very advanced in their strategies, planning. For me it took some time to adapt. Learning was not the difficult part, but having the same consistency was.”
After nearly two years at Orléans, Bhavani has started hitting the high notes. In June, the 29-year-old added another first to her impressive resume when she won a bronze at the 2023 Asian Championships in Wuxi, China. And the Indian did it in style, defeating World No. 1 and defending champion Emura Misaki 15-10 in the quarter-finals to confirm a medal. It was Bhavani’s first win over the Japanese fencer in four meetings.
“I have been waiting for a medal from the senior Asian competition for a long time, so it is very special,” she says. Bhavani narrowly missed out on a medal upgrade, as she lost 14-15 to Uzbekistan’s Zaynab Dayibekova in the semifinals. Both the losing semifinalists were awarded bronze medals.
“I lost to Misaki in the Asian Championship last year. Most of the Japanese fencers are very quick in the box, in the centre of the piste where we fence. With Misaki, last time at the Asian Championships I was a little bit too fast, so I wanted to slow down a little and focus on indirect attacks. She didn’t expect that. It helped me lead 8-2 and after that she came back but I still didn’t change my strategy.”
This maturity of sticking to her guns and not losing way mid-match, has come with time and experience. Bhavani believes she has a much better understanding of fencing, technically and tactically, than two years ago, when she became the first fencer to represent India at the Olympics. “Now it’s getting tougher, because I need to continue to work hard and go to the next level,” says Bhavani. “Making it to Tokyo was a confirmation that I was on the right path.”
When she signed up for the sport, in her school, at the age of 11 and began practicing with bamboo sticks as a makeshift sword, little did Bhavani know where she was going to end up. She spent her first few competitive years finding her footing within the elite sport, without the right financial or technical support.
“First was the financial problem,” says the fencer, who comes from a middle-class family in Chennai. “Secondly, I didn’t know what kind of competitions to go for, which ones to play to qualify for the Olympics, we didn’t have the knowledge. All I knew was to work hard. It was a risky journey, where I didn’t know what I was doing was right or not. I would be preoccupied with buying cheaper air tickets, looking for cheap accommodation, so many things other than training were going on in my mind.”
It was around 2016 that things started looking up. With more investment from government sources, corporates and NGOs, Indian sport, especially Olympic sports, have enjoyed a surge. She started working with coach Nicola Zanotti in Livorno, Italy in 2016. The shift to Europe, and a new way of life, was key to Bhavani realising her Olympic dream and putting India on the map in a sport that is still rather exotic for audience back home.
“I know an athlete’s life better now; how top athletes work, train, eat,” says Bhavani. “In Orléans, training is Monday to Friday—9am to 3pm. Sometimes we work on Saturdays as well. This includes all physical work, technical work, strategy and personal lessons, matches. I have to cook my meals. We stay away from family and miss so many things. But we have a goal and want to work hard for that.”
The star Indian fencer is now gearing up for her next challenge, the 2023 World Fencing Championships, which will be held in Milan, Italy from 22-30 July. More than 1000 fencers—in all three disciplines, sabre, epee and foil—will compete at the marquee event that also offers qualifying points for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“For the World Championships, we had camps against some other countries like Hong Kong, China, USA,” she says. “For me, every competition is a new situation, new challenge.” But she’s better prepared than ever before to handle it.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.