The sabre-rattler: Bhavani Devi looks to make her mark as India debut in fencing

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What must it be, to be an outlier in a sport? To draw curious attention as a participant and be disregarded as a competitor? To wonder if you'll be spending entire tournaments braving pity stares, or distress over referees not deeming your questions serious enough for an explanation?

Over sips of latte in a noisy Italian café, Bhavani Devi checks whether she's audible on the phone call, taking ESPN through her trek from outlier to quiz-question history. She'll be making her Olympic debut on July 26. It will also be India's debut in fencing at the Games. She doesn't feature in the country's projected double-digit medal haul from its triple-digit contingent, but in her white-sabre lame and wire-meshed mask she will enter India's sporting annals for just getting this far.

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"In the beginning, at the international events no one would care about my presence," says Bhavani, currently ranked 42 in the world. "They had tougher opponents from Russia, Italy and France to worry about. I was the only Indian at major competitions so it came off as unusual to most, and I always travelled alone most of my career. Often people would come up to me and ask how I was managing on my own. They looked at me in a pathetic sort of way...perhaps that's the right expression... I really didn't like being seen that way and wanted to be looked at as a normal fencer.

"Earlier when I wasn't too sure if a 'touch' was fair and checked with referees, the replies would usually be hasty or it would be ignored. They might have been thinking, 'okay, what does this girl know anyway'. I was still new to the sport then. With more competitions, some good results and an Olympic qualification, the way others see me has changed. There's more respect now."

For five years now Bhavani, (27), from Washermanpet in north Chennai, has been training in the port city of Livorno on the Tuscan west coast. This time in the country has made her game "quieter", and now she's a "little bit of an Italian inside", Bhavani's coach Nicola Zanotti chuckles.

Aside from perfecting pasta carbonara recipes and growing used to an abridged version of her name, being geographically located in the sport's powerhouse has had its benefits. A European base has opened doors for her to spar with some of the biggest names in sabre and share meals with Olympic champions.

Through recent camps, she has trained alongside world No. 1 Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan, as well as the American and French national teams. A few weeks ago, four-time Olympic medallist Aldo Montana had Bhavani and Zanotti over for dinner and then threw the young Indian an invitation most Games' first-timers would leap at - an Olympics AMA.

At the FIE World Cup in March this year, where Bhavani confirmed her Tokyo qualification, women sabre fencing's most decorated name, Mariel Zagunis, walked up to her to drop some friendly advice during warm-up. Zagunis, who has four Olympic medals and 14 World Championship podium finishes, won an individual gold in women's sabre at the 2004 Athens Games, the year the event made its Olympic debut.

That was also when an 11-year-old Bhavani enrolled for fencing lessons in school since slots in the other sports - boxing, swimming, gymnastics and squash - were already taken and fencing was grappling with a high dropout rate.

When the world came to a halt last year, Bhavani was on the cusp of Olympic qualification.

"Maybe Mariel could sense I was stressed," Bhavani recalls, of the Budapest qualification event. "She told me to block everything out and just focus on myself. I thought to myself 'Wow, she's an Olympic champion and competitor, yet she came over and tried to help me'. After I qualified, both Mariel and her mother congratulated me and said they were happy all my hard work had finally paid off. It feels good when people respect your journey.

"Someone like Montana who's such a legend, he calls me 'Baani', - actually that's how most Italians call me - and I see him at training every day but it still feels unreal to just be around the biggest guys in our sport. I'll be at my first Olympics this year and he, at his last, so it's special for both of us."

"When I close my eyes, all I can picture is me in my all-white gear. I've spent half my life in it yet I never get bored. When I wear it and hold my sabre, I feel powerful"

Unlike running or jumping, fencing is anything but naturally instinctive. Sabre, with origins in cavalry combat, is not about how fiercely one attacks, but how often and how precisely. It is a test of skill rather than strength and has to be trained and honed. The fastest of three (foil and epee being the other two) fencing disciplines, sabre is the only event that allows a slashing motion, counting anywhere above the waist (head included) as the target area and using any part of the blade (only tip in other events) being considered valid.

Zanotti says that Bhavani is "physically among the strongest" of his trainees, blessed with an extremely sturdy pair of legs. Good footwork in sabre can translate into good distance, which can then lead to greater frequency of scoring a touch.

When Bhavani went to Italy for the first time, she had around 25% technique, Zanotti says.

"Her base was good but fencing in India isn't at a professional level. Her movements were too quick, so through training we had to teach her to control her speed. Since she started a bit late, she has to work three times more than everyone else. That's hardly a problem. Bhavani lives for fencing. Her overextended dedication worries me and sometimes I have to remind her ,'Bhavani you need to stop training' and on weekends I call to check on her and ask her to get out of home and go see a few places."

He then reveals an unbeatable motivational tool.

"Ours is a beautiful part of the country. At times all the folks from the academy get together for a pizza dinner or I invite Bhavani home for meals with my family. I think she's now a little bit of an Italian on the inside."

Bhavani spent close to seven years at the SAI facility in Thalassery, Kerala training with shared jackets and equipment, living away from home for the first time and fighting her fear of sleeping alone, before she shifted base to Italy. Like themes in most sports stories go, Bhavani's journey too owes its sustenance to the mother, in this case Ramani. She lost her father, C Sundararamana, who worked as a temple priest, two years ago.

"When she was young, my mother too wanted to play a sport. She wanted to become an advocate, she had so many dreams. But she never had the chance. Her parents didn't even let her finish school. It's why she always wanted her kids to get the freedom and support she never had. After a tough match I know she's waiting to hear my voice. When I visited India a few months ago to participate in the Nationals, she was not keeping too well. She had just recovered from a severe case of Covid for which she had to be hospitalised, but still traveled to Delhi to meet me. Sometimes it amazes me how much courage and belief she carries."

In recent weeks, Bhavani has been putting out pictures of herself on social media - clasping medals, standing on podiums, returning to garlanded welcomes, from previous successful tournament outings - to introduce herself to the average sports fan, who's perhaps waking up to her Olympic debut. Recently, she's also begun using a mask painted in the colours of the Indian national flag.

"I want people to know my journey...how I got here," she says, with childish glee. "When I saw a few other fencers wear their flag colors on their mask, I thought I must get it too. People should know India also competes in fencing."

Her all-consuming obsession for the sport, also suffuses belief in her idea of herself - a fearless vision in white.

"In my mind, the only image I have of myself is in my fencing kit," she says. "When I close my eyes, all I can picture is me in my all-white gear. I've spent half my life in it yet I never get bored. When I wear it and hold my sabre, I feel powerful. It gives me the belief that I can be a better fencer, a better person. It's almost like I don't remember what it's like to be wearing other stuff."