‘Believe I’m better fencer now than I was at Tokyo 2020’: For Bhavani Devi, France move pays off

Having won a historic bronze medal at the recent Asian Fencing Championships in China’s Wuxi, Indian fencer Bhavani Devi believes that she is a better fencer now than when she was at Tokyo, where she became the first Indian fencer to ever compete at an Olympics. The reason? Her move to France to train under sabre master Christian Bauer.

“I believe I’m a better fencer now than I was in Tokyo. My style and way of fencing has changed. I understand fencing as a game, much better now. From Tokyo, the preparation, experiences have helped me to understand better,” Bhavani told The Indian Express on Tuesday. “The position (you stand in on the piste), the way you attack, the strategy, how you plan your tactics (is what has changed). The basics are the same: attack, defense. But how you attack is different: which moment you choose to attack differs from coach to coach. That’s a big difference for me from my previous coach (Nicola Zanotti).”

The changed style she talks about came after she moved to Orleans in France to train under renowned sabre master Christian Bauer in 2021. Until the Olympics, she was based in Livorno where she was working with Zanotti.

Bauer, who specialises in sabre, has coached many athletes to Olympic medals: from Aldo Montano (individual gold at Athens 2004), to the Chinese women’s sabre team (silver at Beijing 2008) and Zhong Man (men’s individual gold at Beijing 2008). He was also the man behind the Russian sabre fencers at London 2012 and Rio 2016, where the European powerhouse claimed multiple medals, including Yana Egorian and Sofya Velikaya’s medals in Bhavani’s event.

“Many things have changed (since I shifted to France), the training timing is different. We train with many opponents. We train with one of the best athletes now (World No 11 Manon Brunet). For me, the understanding of the game and training have changed,” she added.

Initially, it took time for Bhavani to adjust to Bauer’s style from the Italian style of fencing she was already familiar with.

“It’s a huge difference from Livorno to Orleans: The style and the training methods of the coach. It’s a different person, Bauer’s a senior coach. He’s a very high-level coach. The training is competitive, strategy is different, techniques are similar but the way we apply the techniques are different. It was a big change personally. For me it was very easy to adapt to Italian style (under Zanotti), but this was not so easy. To have consistency in the whole season was hard. But I knew one day results will come.

“After moving to France, I worked for every competition I competed in, just as I worked hard for the Asian Championships. It’s just that this time the results showed up,” said the 29-year-old.

Bhavani’s path to bronze went through world champion and World No 1 Emura Misaki, who she beat 15-10 in the quarter-finals. Bhavani had never beaten the Japanese fencer in their past three meetings on the piste.

“The most important thing I wanted to do against Misaki was fight till the end. I tried to avoid the same mistakes from the last time I played against her at the previous Asian Championship. I just wanted to be in rhythm and have good control on the piste. That worked. I was able to maintain the distance and the timing,” she recalled.

Her win over Misaki was not without drama. She was leading 8-2 against the Japanese fencer at one point, but in a few swishes of the blade, the scores were level at 10-10.

“In fencing anything can happen. When it became 10-10, emotionally I was a little insecure because she covered the lead from 2-8. It was a big comeback for her. But I didn’t want to give up. I tried to go for indirect attacks, counter attacks. It worked as I got five points in a row.

“This medal is very special for me. For a country like India in fencing we always work for ranking improvement, or to reach some Round 32 or Round 64. At some point we had to break this pattern, go on the podium! This is the biggest achievement for Indian fencing after me making it to the Olympics. This medal overall has given me more confidence. It makes me believe in myself and the work I do.”

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