Firstpost Masterclass: Face of fencing in India, Bhavani Devi breaks down nuances of her craft

Editor’s note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

As the coronavirus-imposed lockdown extended from days into weeks and then stretched into months, Bhavani Devi was cooped up at home in Chennai duelling with imaginary opponents. Sometimes, she would create an opponent by placing her long kitbag on two bricks and then placing a mask on the bag.

Just like wrestlers or boxers, fencers cannot train by themselves. They need an equally good sparring partner to work on their parries and ripostes, both split-second moves.

That’s why Bhavani had shifted her training base to Italy since 2016 in the first place. But with the pandemic making travel to Italy temporarily impossible, the hard floor of the roof of her building became a fencing piste, and the voice of her coach Nicola Zanetti guided her through video calling as she duelled a mask atop her kitbag.

As Bhavani nonchalantly points out, training against a mask was how she first learnt the sport back in Chennai.

The face of the sport of fencing in India for the past few years, Bhavani took off the mesh mask to give us a glimpse behind it. In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, she explains the nuances of the sport. Excerpts from an interview:

Your siblings are lawyers, one brother works for an insurance company. How unconventional was the decision for you to become a fencer?

I always loved playing when I was young. When I was in Standard VI, some seniors were making lists of students who wanted to enroll for new sports introduced in the school. We had to name six members in each sport. So by the time my chance came, fencing was the only option left. I did not know anything about fencing before. I just wanted to play something so I gave my name.

So it was just sheer luck that you picked up fencing?

Yes.

By why sabre fencing particularly? What interests you about sabre?

When I was explained the sport at first, I was told that sabre was the fastest among the three disciplines of fencing. It’s a discipline where we move fast and hit the opponents first. Or if the opponent attacks first you have to defend quickly. It seems very clear, even from a viewer’s perspective, that sabre is faster than the other two events. That’s why I chose sabre.

You used to do foil before as well…

I actually started doing epee because at my first competition in school, they already had enough players in the other disciplines. So my coach asked me to compete in epee. I lost. After that, I started to take an interest in foil and sabre. It wasn’t just because of that loss that I stopped epee. The second fastest discipline is the foil. So I chose both foil and sabre in the beginning. I still love competing in foil, but after competing in the discipline for four and a half years, India’s fencing federation made a rule that one fencer can only compete in one event. So I chose sabre, which I always wanted to do.

You’ve said in a previous interview that when a youngster picks up a sport in India, you’re taught to ‘just run and hit’. How do other countries groom their youngsters? What are the kind of things they’re taught differently?

Sabre from the early Olympics Games is only about running. You can even cross your legs. It looks almost like a sprint. You just run fast and hit your opponent before they hit you. That’s how sabre was played earlier. Fencing wasn’t developed in India (when I started), that’s why we started following the same techniques at the beginning. After I started playing, we got opportunities to go for more competitions. Then we changed our technique and our style of sabre fencing.

Even now, sabre is constantly changing, be it the rules or the conventions. Even last year they changed the timing rule: if both opponents touch each other with their swords at the same time…if I touch you mini-seconds before you touch me, only one light will light up. But now they include the time, the time is longer. Even if I touch one millisecond after you do, there will be both lights lighting up. There are these kinds of changes still happening. At the beginning, we did not have that exposure. Later we started going to competitions and camps and slowly we’re improving.

You spoke about exposure. You train in Italy with your coach. Could you tell me why you chose Italy and how that has helped you become a better fencer?

Usually, before a World Championships, the international fencing federation (FIE) organises a camp and invites fencers from countries where the sport is not popular. They invite a few athletes from some countries like India and they provide their own coach. We have a camp with them for one or two weeks before a competition. That’s where I met an Italian coach. He was surprised to see an Indian fencer participating in the competition. He also told me that he’s happy to see an Indian fencer with good basics. He said there was a scope for improvement and invited me to come train under him at his club in Italy free of cost for a month. That’s how I first went abroad for training for a month in 2012.

After that, I won a medal at the Junior Commonwealth Championship, an individual bronze medal. There was also a team silver. Then I thought that I need to train abroad for a longer period so I can achieve a sustained level of success in international events. Unfortunately, that coach was busy with other students so he couldn’t take me in again. But thankfully, during the first stint, I had met another Italian coach Nicola Zanotti. He’s trained World Championship and World Cup medallists, and European champions too. So I approached him to train me. He was happy to work with me. I met him in 2013, but at that time I couldn’t go there due to funds. I got funding only in 2016, so I started training with him that year.

We have a very good relationship so I can understand what’s he’s teaching me. I was always good at adapting to new situations. That helped me to understand the Italian style of fencing. The Italian style of fencing is very unique. It is a very tactical form of sabre that Italian fencers use in competitions. It’s difficult to learn but I was able to learn it quickly. Consequently, I was able to see my performances getting better and my rankings rise.

You mentioned the Italians have a very tactical style of playing. Could you tell us a bit about the style of fencing other countries like South Korea follow?

In my opinion, South Korean fencers are very simple in technique. But naturally, they have very good physical qualities. They can make a lunge from a long distance in a very quick time. Italians are not very quick, but they’re tactical: their strategies are very strong.

For example, if they want to make a defensive action, first they’ll make an offensive move and then make a defensive one. It’ll be in a very short time. Sabre is fast. One point can be won in less than 20 seconds. We have to plan the action before and do multiple movements in milliseconds. That’s how Italians are technically and tactically strong. In fact, most of the Europeans are tactically very strong. But Italian sabre is very different. You can easily identify which fencer trains in Europe and who trains in Asia.

What about the American fencers?

In America, there are many coaches from Europe living and working there. So some of their styles are the same but if you see the Italian girls, they have a similar style of fencing. But each American’s style is different. They don’t have one particular style. They draw from all kinds of influences, techniques and tactics.

We’ve seen from wrestlers and boxers how having a sparring partner is really important for them during training. How does not having a sparring partner make a difference to a fencer? Do you need to have a sparring partner or can you train without one?

We definitely need a sparring partner (to train). During a training session, when you hit an opponent the feel is different than when you hit the air or some target in front of you. The opponent will do some action. So you have to adapt to that in a very short time. This you will only get when you train with an opponent. It is difficult to train alone for fencing. You won’t get the timing when you fence alone.

So how difficult was it for you to train during the lockdown after the coronavirus pandemic started, because you’re in Chennai and not Italy, where you usually train?

It is difficult. I’m training against imaginary partners or a dummy partner made by using my kit bag, or by putting my mask on the wall. That’s how I’m doing target training. My coach has been giving me online training. I’m doing whatever I can do in this situation. But, of course, it is difficult without a sparring partner. We don’t have competitions right now. But when competitions start, I hope we have enough time for preparation. Right now, training with a partner is dangerous because of this situation.

A mask mounted on her kitbag which has been elevated using a few bricks was Bhavani Devi's 'opponent' as she trained at her home in Chennai during the coronavirus-imposed lockdown. Image courtesy: Bhavani Devi

You mentioned that you’re placing a mask on a wall and training at home right now. What else are you doing during the lockdown that maybe you have never tried before?

This mask training… I have done this earlier also. When I started fencing we did not have much equipment in Chennai. So we would place a fencing mask on the wall and do target training. Sometimes we would use sticks because the swords would be only for competition. So this is not a new idea for me. Maybe just the bag (is a new idea), because this time I used a long kit bag. Back then we would use only the wall.

I haven’t done anything new. I tried to do more fitness training. Online fitness training ― putting my phone in front of me and having my coach give me instructions ― was new. I’d never done that earlier. Other than that, all my routines are the same. At the beginning we only trained at home, I used whatever I had at home. Obviously, I didn’t have much fitness equipment at home. My fitness trainer gave me exercises to do at home. I used to do chairs and benches, even windows, during the lockdown to train. Only from the past few weeks I have been going to Nehru Stadium because training on my roof is different.

Of course, I’m doing the same fencing training as I would do on my roof, but the floor is different. The floor on my roof is very hard and it’s not suited for training for longer periods as it could hurt my knees or lower back. The good thing is that they have allowed me to train at Nehru Stadium. Now I am doing proper fitness training at Ramachandra University, where they have a centre for sports science. It’s a high-performance centre. Right now this is what I am doing and waiting for commercial flights to start. My coach is waiting for me in Italy.

When you look at the sport, it seems to be a discipline where you need speed, balance, fleet-footedness, precision. But what would you say is the most important quality required to be a fencer?

To be a fencer you need all of these. We say that to pass an IAS exam you need to have a little bit of knowledge about all subjects. It’s the same for fencing. You need to have all qualities: mental strength, flexibility, speed, endurance, patience. We don’t use one speed (to attack or draw back). In sabre ― which is the fastest discipline in fencing ― you move slower than epee and foil also. We have to change according to the situation, and the opponent. I cannot say that you need just one quality for being a good fencer. Other than all these physical attributes, you also need mental preparation. You have to think and make the right decisions at the right time.

For people who are watching fencing, hits take place so fast that sometimes it’s impossible to tell who scored. But for a fencer in action, does it feel like the whole action of attacking, parrying, riposte…all of that take place in slow-motion?

Yes. A fencer who’s on the piste can feel this. They can imagine that action in slow motion.

A lot of what happens in fencing seems to be charging and lunging forwards sideways and scurrying back sideways. What happens when you have a left-handed opponent? Do you have to change tactics drastically to counter them?

We don’t have to change many things. Only little things… Right-handed fencers are always strong on the parry towards their left. Imagine the en garde position of a right-handed fencer, they can easily go to the left side of their body than opening up to the right side of their bodies. For the left-handed fencer, it’s the same. So when you face a left-handed fencer, you need to attack their left side as they will be stronger on the right. Of course, all top athletes are strong on both sides of parry.

When you’re training for a competition, what does your day look like?

During a competition, one day before my event, I’ll do a light warm-up with the coach. I’ll go to the arena and stretch a little bit to get a feel of the venue. On the day of the competition, we do a long warm-up. Competition days are long, we start at around 9 am and rounds go till 4 or 5 pm. We get enough breaks. But in the beginning, if we do it, it still helps till the end of the day. I prefer to do a long warm-up. Before the competition, I do small matches, for five points, with other fencers. Five minutes before my matches, I go to my piste and try to imagine what I need to do during the match and against a particular opponent.

How much of weight training do you have to do as a fencer? Simultaneously, how much do you have to focus on cardiovascular exercises as a fencer?

I know some fencers who do not do any weight training. I personally like to do weight training. We don’t do much of it like some other sports. We do things like squats and deadlifts, but that’s also with not too much weight loaded on the bar. It depends on the athlete and the coach. If an athlete needs to improve their lunge or footwork during a match, then they work on squats and explosive jumps. If an athlete can do all the actions you do in fencing naturally, you don’t have to do anything in particular. I’ve seen both kinds of fencers, those who do a lot of weight training, and those who none.

You’ve spoken of living in Italy for training and to get a decent exposure. Could you tell us a little bit about the aspect of funding and financial support in fencing in a country like India where there isn’t so much visibility?

I almost thought of quitting the sport because of this financial situation. Then GoSports Foundation selected me under their scholarship scheme called Rahul Dravid Mentorship Program. When I went for the interview, I never thought I would the scholarship because fencing was not a popular sport. I didn’t even know that a foundation like GoSports existed in India which supports athletes.

A close friend of mine applied for the scholarship on my behalf. Then she told me the interview was going to be in Chennai, I said I will go for the interview, but I never thought I would get it. I decided that if I don’t get the scholarship, I will stay back home (in Chennai) and stop fencing. At that time, in 2015, I was training in Sports Authority of India’s Thalassery centre (in Kerala). But when my name was announced for the scholarship, I was surprised at the beginning… a foundation like this was supporting a new sport is what we need in India. Now they have seven fencers in their scholarship scheme, including junior athletes. I’m very happy. GoSports has played a very important role in my career. Because of them, I was able to continue my career.

Would you consider that as the second piece of good fortune that you had in your career?

Yes, I told GoSports that they gave me a second opportunity to continue fencing.

Have you had the chance to meet Rahul Dravid? If you have what are the kind of things he told you?

During the interview in Chennai, we had an interaction session with Rahul sir. He was very polite. We were more than 20 athletes in that session. Everyone was asking questions, most of which were the same questions. The words were different but the questions were the same. I also asked some questions. The best thing that I saw from Rahul sir is that he heard every question completely and he answered every one of them very patiently and in a way that athletes can understand.

I asked about the difference between training and competition because sometimes I perform well in training, but I don’t perform at the same level in competitions. So he explained to me very well, and in a way that changed my attitude towards training and competition. He’s very polite and very positive.

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