New Delhi: It was the end of 2003. In the 6th standard classroom of a school in north Chennai, examination scores were being declared. Among the nervous students was a 10-year-old girl called CA Bhavani Devi. Not very good at academics, she knew her fate. So she framed an excuse to exit the classroom. Outside, some seniors were jotting down names on a piece of paper. The school had introduced gymnastics, squash, and fencing as new sports, and asked interested students to enroll. Bhavani saw in it a route to escape studies. But all slots for gymnastics and squash were filled. To Bhavani, the sport didn’t matter. “I will do fencing,” she said on that day 14 years ago. Today, she is the first Indian to win a fencing gold medal at a world event.

In May this year, Bhavani answered the spark her coach Sagar Lagu saw in her. In the saber event of Tournoi Satellite Fencing Championship held in Reykjavik, Iceland, she beat Sarah Jane Hampson of Great Britain to create history. In a sport that hardly gets news space in the country, Bhavani put India on the world map. It’s no surprise then that at present she is ranked 36 in the International Fencing Federation (FIE) rankings for women, when no Indian has ever been in the top 50.

But nothing that is sport came natural to Bhavani. No one in the family, including her four elder siblings, actively played any sport. Being the youngest in the family helped, and she got all the support her father C Anandha Sundararaman, a priest, and mother CA Ramani, a homemaker, could manage from their little earnings.

“My parents, especially my mother, are the main force behind my fencing career,” Bhavani said talking to The Field.

Things started moving briskly from 2007 when coach Lagu spotted her at the junior nationals in Amravati. He took her to the Sports Authority of India’s training centre in Thalassery, Kerala.

“She lost to one of my students (at junior nationals) but I liked the way she played,” Lagu told The Field. “And in 2008, she became the Under-17 national gold medallist in sabre.”

But funding for sports like fencing is always an issue for Indian athletes.

Funding expensive sport

“Bhavani’s mother has struggled a lot to get sponsorships. She is always trying it out talking to NGOs and corporates, arranging funds for her training and competition travel,” Lagu told.

Thankfully today, she is supported by GoSports Foundation. But it was after Bhavani got the backing of former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, late Jayalalithaa.

“In 2008, I met Jayalalithaa madam when I wanted to go for the senior Asian Championship in Korea. The association did not have money to pay for my expenses, so I requested Jaya madam, who was not the CM then. She invited me and gave the cheque herself,” Bhavani recalled.

Better training and exposure, including by Italian coach Nicola Zanotti, showed up in Bhavani’s performance. In 2009, she won her first international medal, a bronze, in sabre team event of Junior Commonwealth Championship in Malaysia. The next year she became senior national open champion and went on to win team bronze at Cadet Asian Championship. An individual bronze and team silver came her way in 2012 Junior Commonwealth Championship. In 2014 and 2015, she won individual silver at the under-23 Youth Asian Championship.

“In 2015, after I won bronze at the Flemish Open in Belgium, I requested Jaya madam to include me in Tamil Nadu’s Mission Olympics Elite Athlete Scheme, and she immediately passed an order for that,” told Bhavani.

“Fencing is an expensive sport. The equipment cost runs into lakhs and it lasts only a year. Then I need to travel to compete and train around the world. Today, if I go to a tournament, say in Europe, after that I have to take a break for three-four months to arrange funds for my next move. Missing tournaments and training in that period pushes me back,” she told The Field.

“Talking about the Fencing Association of India, they paid for our travel to Asian Championship but can’t do much if they are not allotted sufficient funds,” she added.

That puts into perspective her disappointment at competitions after the Satellite gold – the Fencing Grand Prix (lost in preliminaries), Asian Fencing Championships (lost in the quarterfinals) and the World Championship (finished 59th).

And ever since Jayalalitha’s sad demise, state support hasn’t been the same for Bhavani. “After Jayalalitha [her death], nothing has been released by the [Tamil Nadu] government. In fact, we have heard that they may reduce the sponsorship amount under the elite athlete scheme from Rs. 25 lakh to Rs 10 lakh per year,” coach Lagu said.

But Bhavani isn’t perturbed. Her historic feat in Reykjavik not only made her No 36 in the world but also No 8 in the Asia-Oceania zone with 42.5 points. Now she wants to stay on course to live the Tokyo Olympics 2020 dream.