"Finally, I feel free." That was what Bhavani Devi said she felt after becoming the first Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics.
For the sabre fencer to win a berth, South Korea needed to finish in the top four of the team event of the World Cup in Budapest, which would automatically earn them a Tokyo qualification, allowing her to claim one of two individual spots reserved for Asia & Oceania via Adjusted Official Ranking (AOR).
During the South Korea-Hungary quarterfinals on Sunday afternoon, Bhavani and her Italian coach Nicola Zanotti were in a fidgety knot. "We were in the playing hall... I was telling myself if this opportunity slips away, I still have one last qualification event [continental qualifiers in Seoul]," Bhavani tells ESPN. "The next thing I knew, I was weeping and my coach was hugging me tight. South Korea had won. I had been waiting for this moment all my life. Through all of last year, especially the lockdown, I carried it within me, holding on to this hope. Finally, I feel free."
The Sabre World Cup, which concluded in Budapest on Sunday, was the first major international fencing event since the pandemic struck and was held behind closed doors. Grappling with a third wave, Hungary has strict restrictive measures in place until April 7. With flights seeming both circuitous and likely to take just as long, Bhavani and Zanotti traveled by road for 10 hours from their training base in Livorno, Italy, to Budapest for the tournament. "We were tested on arrival and not allowed to leave our hotel, except for purposes of travelling to the venue. We had food delivered to our rooms and almost everything was shut outside."
From a black card (the highest penalty, leading to expulsion from the tournament) in her first international competition for showing up three minutes late for her bout, to her mother pawning her jewellery to be able to afford the expenses of Bhavani's then fledgling competitive career, the 27-year-old has come a long way. She has spent close to five years away from home and family in Chennai to train in Europe, funded and supported by GoSports Foundation.
"As an Indian fencer you have to put twice the effort in all aspects, to even stand a chance. It's not a popular sport in our country. I'm used to being the only Indian at major international events through most of my career." she says. "Even though I've four siblings, my parents prioritised my needs as an athlete over the others. When I reached Budapest, I was clear in my mind that whether I finally manage to make it to Tokyo or not, I shouldn't have any regrets. I know how much I have trained these past five years. How hard I've worked and how tough it's been to stay away from my family, missing every festival and occasion. The only regret I have is my father (whom she lost in 2019) not being around for this moment."
Bhavani is, however, mindful that qualification is only a start. It is going to be a daunting task at the Olympics. At this World Cup, Bhavani lost in the round of 64 in the individual event to a Hungarian opponent seeded lower than her. She has a few more months of training to throw in before Tokyo.
It's now a 10-hour road journey back to Livorno and the only celebration Bhavani is looking forward to is a night's undisturbed sleep. "I haven't slept in the last four days," she says. "It's one of those things when your mind is on a loop and just won't switch off. Tonight I think I'll pass out on the bed."