In India, champions make themselves
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It was only when she heard the team from Maharashtra yell “Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji” at the Nationals that C.A. Bhavani Devi, who won India’s first international gold medal in fencing earlier last month, realized that people might easily think she was named after the Maratha warrior’s famous sword.
Fencing was just a freak accident of fate. When she was in class VI, Bhavani cringed as her teacher distributed the final exam results. Suddenly there was a welcome interruption—sports sign-ups for squash, swimming, gymnastics, boxing and fencing, introduced in Tamil Nadu’s schools by the late chief minister J. Jayalalithaa. By the time they got to Bhavani, all the slots were filled, but they returned to say they needed more students for fencing. That day Bhavani would have opted for any sport to escape her poor marks.
The athletes of emerging India surprise us every day. A 23-year-old Chennai-based sabreuse, born to a priest and a home-maker, who heads out to compete with the world, alone and confident, and strikes her opponent’s torso, arms and head swiftly enough to win a gold medal in a combat sport, is straight out of a postmodern fairy tale. Bhavani is at present ranked 57 in the world. She has won 12 international medals at various levels.
My pop culture references in this area are all gory: Beatrix’s lethal Samurai sword in Kill Bill and Jhansi ki Rani, eternally on a horse, sword raised and always combative. Yours probably includes the sword dance cricketer Ravindra Jadeja performs with his bat every time he scores a half-century.
Sportswomen like Bhavani don’t have the luxury of this sabre rattling, reserved exclusively for flatulent Indian cricket. Like her colleagues from “other” sports, Bhavani doesn’t brag. There are no headline-grabbing confrontations in fencing. There’s no posturing; just achievement that is usually logged while we are looking elsewhere. The money is always low.
When she began fencing at Chennai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, they practised with sticks on the badminton court; swords were only for tournaments. Even today she practises with cheaper Chinese blades, reserving the better-quality European blades for her competitive bouts.
For the students, sabre fencing—one of three types of fencing where you score with the edge of your 110cm blade—meant just running and hitting your opponent. That’s what they did for the first five years and, sometimes, Bhavani still moves unnecessarily fast in a bout.
As she started competing and realized she was actually quite good at this sport, Bhavani wanted to enter every senior category. “There was an entry fee in every category but my mum would arrange the money somehow,” she says over the phone from Italy, where she is training. In 2010, she won gold in the under-20 and senior categories in the fencing Nationals.
C.A. Ramani is the classic Indian mother who has the ability to magically juggle limited money to make sure her children get what they need. Bhavani’s father, Anandha Sundhara Raman, would have preferred she concentrate on academics (her older siblings opted for careers in insurance, law and banking), but he would escort her and chat with her coaches about her progress. “My parents never told me to do something else. They knew I was serious about this sport,” says Bhavani. It probably helped that she was the youngest of five children. Research has shown that the youngest children get the most support to follow their dreams.
These past few years Bhavani has managed to find monetary support. Non-profit GoSports Foundation has partly funded her since 2015 with its Rahul Dravid Athlete Mentorship Programme. Since last year, she has been a beneficiary of Tamil Nadu’s SDAT elite scheme, under which five selected athletes receive Rs25 lakh a year till the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, but the programme has been in disarray since Jayalalithaa’s death in December.
Over the years, individuals and companies based in Chennai have contributed. Many strangers, including NRI communities in the US, have supported her along the way. A few years ago, she raised $5,000 (around Rs3.2 lakh) through crowdfunding. Her mother always has pending loans.
But money or no money, a major part of this journey must be undertaken alone, as many in our sports fraternity will tell you. For the past four years she’s travelled alone across the world entering competitions. “Train, cook, eat, study…it’s been just me and my work,” she says. During her first solo overseas trip in 2010, she was terrified. She stayed put in her 22nd-floor room at the Holiday Inn in Manila, too scared to step into the lift and worried that if she left the hotel to eat something, she would get lost. “When my team arrived, I was so happy I cried,” she says.
Back then she didn’t speak English fluently and had only ever eaten south Indian food. “I couldn’t even eat pasta. Now I can eat anything, go anywhere,” she says.
Indian athletes have to be self-motivation gurus to survive. Here’s how it usually works: The coach says there’s a tournament coming up. The federation gives the sponsor a cost estimate. The athlete figures out the rest. She can’t depend on national camps (they may not take place some years), or sports associations (they may run out of money or just stop functioning) or the quality of equipment supplied by her country (the fabric of the fencing suit from the Sports Authority of India, for example, is not stretchable and has been known to tear in the middle of a bout).
At the Junior Commonwealth Championships in 2012, where Bhavani won the bronze, her coach’s British visa was delayed and he arrived after her bout. She has attended many tournaments solo.
Sometimes, all this self-reliance can take a toll. Bhavani was excited to try out for the 2016 Rio Olympics. For six months, she trained with the coach of her favourite sabreuse, Olympian Mariel Zagunis. “If I had fought hard and lost, I could at least say I tried, but I was so nervous and stressed. Emotionally I was not in control,” says Bhavani. She lost in the qualifiers.
She’s already begun to work for 2020. She is participating in the ongoing Senior Asian Championships in Hong Kong. If we can just provide some support and stay out of her way, we could be sending the first Indian fencer to the next Olympics. I wonder if that’s motivation enough for us.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.