How a mother's sacrifice saw Bhavani Devi become India's first Olympic fencer

photo of indian fencer bhavani devi wearing a fencing lame
Paul Thomas
Indian fencer Bhavani Devi is all geared up for the Tokyo Olympics 2021 (Photo credits: Digeometry)

March 15, 2021 - Most people will not know the significance of this date, but for Chadalavada Anandha Sundhararaman Bhavani Devi, better known as CA Bhavani Devi, it was the culmination of a 17-year journey fraught with hardships.

The journey ultimately culminated in the 27-year-old qualifying for the quadrennial extravaganza, the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

A cursory Google check regarding Fencing in India does not throw up a lot of hits. But the athlete from Chennai has the chance to change all of that this July, after she became the first-ever Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics.

But to truly understand the significance of the achievement, one has to dive deep into her life and trace the steps she took to reach where she has today.

Bhavani Devi - Amma's daughter

Born to homemaker CA Ramani and priest Anandha Sundharam in Chennai's Old Washermanpet area, Bhavani Devi grew up at a time when girls were not exactly encouraged to take up sports as a career option. It is something she has alluded to in numerous interviews.

The former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms. J Jayalalithaa, started a ‘Sports in Schools’ initiative which completely changed the course of her life. The then-11-year-old girl of Muruga Dhanushkodi Girls’ Higher Secondary School in Tondiarpet, Bhavani Devi, ended up opting for fencing out of the options of swimming, squash, boxing and fencing.

Also read: Fueled with confidence, fencer Bhavani Devi aims to put up a strong show at Tokyo Olympics

Initially, it involved using bamboo sticks as the professional equipment required was quite costly. But the family persevered and Bhavani Devi turned out to be a natural. After a few years, national age group titles started coming in and soon after, international championships as well.

It was then that the first big stumbling block hit. She wanted to go to the US for training as the facilities over there were far superior to the ones available back home. Her mother, who had been Bhavani Devi's guiding light, then went on to pawn her jewelry to ensure Bhavani’s training continued.

Operation reboot

The second stumbling block arrived prior to the Rio Olympics after the Chennai athlete failed to qualify. In her own words, she was close to quitting the sport but once again her mother encouraged her to keep going. When GoSports and the TN government came in to fund her full-time, she managed to get a coach for herself, Italian Nicola Zanetti.

That proved to be the missing link as Bhavani Devi went from strength to strength. Her performances showed drastic improvement as she neared her goal of qualifying for Tokyo.

India's first international gold medal in the sport arrived when she won gold at the Women's World Cup satellite tournament in Iceland in 2017. In 2018, she would beat England's Emily Ruaux 15-12 to win gold at the Commonwealth Championships, the first Indian to do so in the tournament's 44-year history.

Watch: Tokyo Olympics-bound fencer Bhavani Devi shares sneak peek into her workout routine

Her family has been Bhavani Devi's biggest support system so far, but that suffered a jolt in 2019 when her father Anandha passed away while Bhavani Devi was training in Italy. But Ramani ensured her daughter never felt lonely as the bond between the two grew even stronger during the nationwide lockdown last year.

With one tournament left for qualification, news of her mother being admitted to the hospital due to COVID-19 reached the 27-year-old. At the time, Bhavani Devi was gearing up for the Budapest World Cup, where she ultimately ended up sealing her quota.

Forfeiting her dreams and rushing back were Bhavani Devi's first thoughts but through a video call from her hospital bed, Ramani reassured her daughter. The mother reminded her of the dream Bhavani Devi had when starting out and the sacrifices her parents had to make.

That call was enough to inspire the fencer to achieve what no other fencer has achieved in India to this day as she qualified for the Olympic Games via AOR (Adjusted Official Ranking).

The kind of journey she has had and with the resilience in the face of adversity she possesses, Tokyo might just be the next glorious chapter in the life of CA Bhavani Devi.

Edited by Rohit Mishra


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