Less than 12 months ago, CA Bhavani Devi became the first Indian to win a gold medal in an international fencing event at the Turnoi Satellite Fencing Championship at Reykjavik in Iceland.

For many Indians, this was the first time they came across the sport and the three categories under it – sabre, foil and epee. But a year later, not only is the 24-year-old from Tamil Nadu a well known name in the circuit, but also the flag-bearer of the unconventional sport.

Bhavani competes with a sabre, which is shorter than the other two weapons used for fencing. Sabre fencers can score points anywhere above the hips, including the arms and head.

Bhavani on Saturday reached the final of the sabre event of the championship in Iceland. She got the silver medal after going down 10-15 to USA’s Alexis Browne. But for the 24-year-old, this year’s performance was a lot more satisfying given the much higher level of competition in Iceland.

“Every competition is different for me and I thought that my performance was better than the last year,” Bhavani said. “Reaching the final again is a good sign because it was more difficult this year. The semi-final and quarter-final matches were against the tougher opponents, both [Parede Torres and Guila Arpino] were very strong fencers.”

“I faced the Italian girl [Arpino and beat her 15-10 in the semi-final] ,who I have trained with a couple of times in the past. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses well so it wasn’t an easy match because when you have played together for some time, anything can happen. But I fenced well in that match and won,” she added.

Defending a title, one that was of huge significance back home, can mean a lot of undue pressure. But for the Tamil Nadu youngster, pressure is just part of the sport.

“It all depends on the athletes and how they handle pressure. All elite athletes have to face pressure so it is all on how they carry it in a positive way,” she said, her response clearly indicating the confident mind space the determined fencer is in.

‘Good year for me’

Since last year’s gold, a lot has changed for the 24-year-old. 2017 was her third time in this competition, having lost in the quarter-finals in previous years. And while she had won medals at the Asian and Commonwealth championships, a gold at the world level has brought the relatively niche sport in the spotlight in India.

“It’s a good year for me. I got more support from the government and also got into the Target Olympic Podium Scheme. The sport of fencing has also been recognised by the government and the people,” she said.

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Ranked 38 in the world, Bhavani has had a good year, not just in terms of support, but also in her training. She is currently training in Italy, where fencing is a very popular sport.

“I have been working with my Italian coach Nicola Zanotti for more than a year and I have been improving well with him. From each competition we learn a little more about the areas I have to improve on,” she said.

“Training and competition are different, in the end. From the last competition, we figured that I need to do better in my defence because my offence is good. So that is what we worked on for this competition and it worked well,” she added.

Eyes on the Asian Games

She has a few more competitions lined up in the next couple of months. But for Bhavani, the biggest prize this year will be in Jakarta, at the Asian games in August this year.

“We have Commonwealth Championships coming up. Unfortunately it isn’t included in the Games but this is very important for us. But Asian Games is the ultimate goal for this year. We are working on all the areas like offence, defence and tactics to be ready for the big event,” the 24-year-old said.

Her one gold medal last year has changed a lot for fencing in India as well. At the 2014 Asiad, India has no representation in fencing. But in 2018, Bhavani is sure there will be a team going there and is hopeful of a medal. She has all the support she needs and the federation is also being supported by the government.

“TOPS, Tamil Nadu government, and Go Sport Foundation are all supporting me. They are all doing a lot not just for me, but the government is supporting the sport and the federation. So it is a good sign for fencing in India but there is a long way to go,” she said.

Good sign but a long way to go is the state of most niche sports in India. But with consistent performances that Bhavani is putting up, it could be the start of something bigger.