Bhavani Devi made her way to the yellow piste for India’s Olympic debut bout on Monday, with a worry tugging at her mind. She hadn’t heard from her mother in a couple of hours and couldn’t be sure if she’d managed to find her way alone from her hotel to the fencing venue, 40 minutes away, complete the long walk to the playing hall and locate the piste in time for the bout.
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“This morning my mother had asked me to focus on my matches and not to worry about her getting to the venue,” Bhavani tells ESPN. “Since she was traveling alone and speaks only Tamil, I was a bit tense. Just as I walked in for my match, I noticed her seated in the area overlooking my piste, smiling. I was so surprised and relieved. I was like, ‘wow you made it.’ I still have no idea how. When I saw the Olympic rings and my mother in the stands, I felt emotional. I knew I was living my dream.”
Those of us who scrambled out of bed early on Monday morning to witness a snapshot of history, were treated to an ethereal vision in silver-white with the Indian national flag for a face, scoring touches quicker than we can count our fingers.
Bhavani’s first match against lower-ranked Tunisian Ben Azizi Nadia was over in a flash and clang, all of six minutes and 14 seconds. Barely had they straightened from their half-crouch en-garde stance, the Indian tore towards Nadia in Pamplona-esque fashion. Eight straight points – from cutting, slashing with the sabre sides and the blunt, rolled-over tip, in the first period of three minutes. A minute’s breather later, the Tunisian was crushed like a soda can.
Her round of 32 match, against the French Manon Brunet, was the test she’d been preparing copious notes for. The fist pumps and screams from both fencers – part anxiety release, part mind-game, part appeal to referees for right-of-way touch (when both fencers attack each other, touch is awarded to the fencer who had the initiative) – could rival the shrillest of tennis players.
For Bhavani, seeded 29 out of 36 competitors, the world No. 3 Brunet was a few frames quicker and craftier. She wishes to get that good one day.
“I tried to change my movements a bit in the second half,” Bhavani looks back, “made few touches (five), and some parries (defensive blocks) but couldn’t riposte (attack after the block) well. It was a bit too quick, and was one of those matches which you can only fully grasp after it’s over. I was a little disappointed. Maybe people back in India expected a lot more from me. I really tried my best.”
In the few days she’s been in Tokyo, Bhavani has barely had a good look at the Games Village, where she’s housed along with athletes from across the world. Before she flies back to India with her mother in a few days, she wants to tick a few to-dos off her list. She got down to working on it soon after her matches by staying back at the Makuhari Messe convention center to watch the remaining fencing bouts.
The Games are being carried out under extraordinary circumstances. For athletes it only adds an extra layer of pressure. When she arrived in Tokyo from Livorno, Bhavani was stranded at the airport for five hours completing formalities, verifications and downloading a number of apps as instructed.
“There are strict protocols here and we have to wear masks at all times. I have another RT-PCR test scheduled before I leave Tokyo. But I’m just so happy that the Games could happen. I was okay to go through any amount of tests and wait for any number of hours for it,” she says.
This year, the opening ceremony was a restrained show in sobriety, barely attended by 20 Indian athletes. Bhavani wouldn’t have missed it for the world. “It’s one of those things you always saw on TV but never imagined being a part of,” she says, “At the ceremony, it was a long walk to the stadium. But when I looked back at how far I’ve traveled from my early days in Chennai to reach an Olympic Games, it felt like nothing.”