An eight-year-long journey into the fencing world has taught Riya Bakshi, a promising 20-year-old from Jammu, that earning a podium finish in a foil event at the continental level is as difficult as climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.
“Having passion for an Olympic discipline like fencing that isn’t popular in India is all about climbing a long steep hill,” the college-going fencer told Sportskeeda in a recent interview.
Riya represented India at the Cadet and Junior Asian Fencing Championships thrice between 2018 and 2019, but couldn’t go beyond pool matches.
“Technically Indian fencers in foil events are far behind their rivals at the Asian level," Riya said. The gap is too wide. Regular long-term international exposure is the only way to bridge the gap.”
The left-handed fencer from Jammu won a ticket to compete at next month’s Chengdu World University Games in China by winning women’s foil title at the Khelo India University Games held in Bengaluru this week.
The 2021 edition of the World University Games was postponed last year due to the pandemic.
“I’m praying to God that the World University Games shouldn’t get postponed this year as I badly need international exposure,” Riya said.
Last year, Indian fencing gained the spotlight as Bhavani Devi made the cut for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games in women’s saber event via continental quota. Funded by the government and private sponsors, the 28-year-old from Chennai is based out of Europe to polish her skills.
“It’s a big advantage to practice and compete in Europe," Riya commented on Bhavani Devi. "Not everyone is as lucky as Bhavani to get good international exposure."
Riya’s father is a teacher at a local government school in Jammu. Fencing sports is a huge sacrifice in terms of funds for the Bakshi family.
Good quality consumable equipment like imported blades of the sword costs between Rs. 12,000 and Rs. 16,000 in the Indian market. Other equipment too gets worn out from time to time.
“The blade of the sword can be damaged in a day or it might last for more than a month,” Riya explained. “While imported blade is used at international level competitions, cheaper Indian quality blade can be used for practice.”
Riya's journey so far into the fencing world says that youngsters from small towns are enthusiastic about making it big in the sports world, but the lack of a robust system at the grassroots level hampers their progress.
Riya’s introduction to fencing in 2014 was by default. She took to fencing by watching others in a school meet as there was no scouting of talent in the region. The local fencing coach gave Riya the thumbs up as she was left-handed, saying it would be an advantage during the competition. A silver medal at the 2016 National Cadet Fencing Championships gave her some confidence.
However, the following year reality struck Riya when she had to train without a blade for three long months in 2017.
“Paucity of funds was a big issue," the young fencer revealed. "The blade wasn’t available in India. I had to wait for a long time to get it from abroad."
There were ups and downs but Riya kept her composure. She regained her confidence when she claimed silver at the 2018 Junior National Fencing Championships.
The same year, she became eligible for a monthly scholarship of Rs. 10,000 from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) as the Khelo India medal winner. It was a big relief for the Bakshi family.
“The money enabled me to fund my passion,” Riya said. The scholarship was for a short period of time but was a big support.”
At the 2019 edition of the junior nationals meet, she won gold and represented India in the age-group continental championships.
“The competition at the continental meet was eye-opening for me because technically I wasn’t as skilful as my rivals,” she recalled. “I couldn’t make a big impression at the continental competition.”
After lying low in 2020 and 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic brought sports activities to a halt, the 2022 season has been quite satisfactory for the Jammu fencer. She reached the quarterfinals of her respective event at the senior nationals held last month in Punjab and became eligible for the Asian Games camp.
The most rewarding moment, however, was this week when she won a gold medal at the Khelo India University Games in Bengaluru.
“I believe I’m moving in the right direction,” Riya concluded.