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On the rise: Gurjar dreams of fencing glory

In 2015, six years into fencing as a sport from the “talwaarbaazi” it was largely known to be back then, Karan Singh Gurjar was at a crossroads. The teen from Alwar, Rajasthan, did not have enough funds to travel to Cape Town for the junior Commonwealth Championships, which happened to be his first international event. He walked up to his parents and sold the belief of a medal, yet fell short of the money from them at short notice.

Karan Singh Gurjar(Instagram)

“We somehow got together the amount, collecting from our well-wishers and friends. I went there, won the individual cadet silver on the first day and junior gold on the second,” Gurjar recalled.

“After these kinds of struggles when you reach somewhere, it feels good. You think—kaha the, kaha aa gaye hai, aur aage kaha jaa sakte hai.”

Two years ago, Gurjar was in the mid-200s of the international federation’s senior rankings. Now, the 23-year-old is the world No. 63 as India’s fast-rising sabre fencer competing with the elite alongside Bhavani Devi.

He also joined Bhavani as the individual sabre champion at the senior fencing nationals in Pune on Monday. Days before, Gurjar defeated the 7th-ranked French fencer Maximme Pianfetti in the World Cup Round of 64 in Italy where he finished 32nd among over 200 competitors. Last month in the Poland World Cup, he was 30th. It’s been a significant upswing from last year where, although he went past 14th seed Mao Kokubo of Japan in the first round of the World Championships, Singh did not have a single top-50 show in World Cups.

“I’ve been doing well this season so far,” Gurjar said. “When you beat the people who you see win medals, it helps you carry that confidence. It makes me believe that if I can compete with these guys, I can compete with anyone.”

This mindset was almost alien to Gurjar before the Tokyo Games, which not only proved a turning point for Bhavani and Indian fencing but also for the youngster. By then, Gurjar had an individual bronze at the senior Commonwealth Championships in 2018 to go with consistent success at the national level. But there was only so much he could do and so far he could get staying and training in India, he would realise.

And so Gurjar followed the footsteps of the path-breaking Bhavani, who’d been training in Italy before shifting to France, and landed in Orleans at coach Christian Bauer’s academy in 2021. It helped that finances were no longer a major worry; Gurjar is now under TOPS, is also supported by GoSports and is employed with the Navy. The move also ensured he competed in more Grand Prixs and World Cups in Europe, engineering a push in his world rankings.

“When I left India, my ranking was 256. I decided that I need to go out, get my rankings up and begin my own quest to qualify for the next Olympics,” he said.

Among the top fencers training at Bauer’s academy includes Georgian Sandro Bazadze, the world No. 1 in sabre with whom Gurjar often spars. “When you train with them, live with them, your motivation goes to another level. I felt that being there.”

The initial few months were challenging, admits Gurjar, in not just adjusting to the new culture but also in “what the coach was trying to make me do”. It reflected in his underwhelming results of last year. “In my almost decade of training in India, the techniques were different. To change it does take time. Par woh kehte hai na—der aaye durust aaye (better late than never),” he said.

Gurjar trains from 9am to 3pm at the academy in a single session involving fitness, skill training and bouts. While the focus is more on technical nuances in the off-season, sparring takes priority around competitions. Having a familiar face around in Bhavani is a boon.

“The first year, especially, she helped me a lot because I was finding it difficult to adjust to life there. Whenever I felt low, I would speak to her. She would tell me, ‘It happens, I have been living outside a lot too’. We speak a lot during training too being from the same event,” he said.

Gurjar stays alone in a rented flat, the only getaway from fencing being the occasional dinner outings with the group. “Of course, I miss home, family, friends. But to fulfill dreams, you have to sacrifice, get out of your comfort zone. And I believe if your goals are big, these things should not matter.”

Gurjar’s goals are indeed big; the kind the boy from Alwar did not even know existed when he picked up fencing. “The goal is to participate in the Olympics, and then eventually try and win a medal. I assess my level and set goals accordingly—aisa nahi ki I want to win an Olympic gold straightaway.”

Getting to the Paris Games next year remains the first step. The Asian Championships and the worlds this season are priorities in the route to qualification, apart from maintaining and trying to improve his ranking. And then there’s also the Asian Games later this year. “That will be a big event for me. I feel I could finish in the top four there.”

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