The year 2022 has been one of big changes for Bhavani Devi - a change in coach, a subsequent change in technique and training methods. This, she acknowledges, is a risk. But it is one she needs to take for her long-term success in the sport.
Last year, she became the first Indian fencer to compete at the Olympics - a momentous achievement for a sport that is still only developing in India. This year, she competed in about 10 international competitions including the World and Asian Championship and defended her gold medal at the Commonwealth Championship in August.
In terms of international exposure, it has been a fruitful season even if there are not as many medals to show for it. This is her first full season with well-known fencing coach Christian Bauer, 70, at his academy in Orleans, France, where she trains with fellow Olympians.
The 29-year-old feels she has several things to work on in her lightning-quick sport that demands split-second decisions. Terming her changed style a risk, she's still testing it and the upcoming National Games will give her the platform to do that.
"I have changed my coach, my techniques, my strategies and we have more important tournaments lined up so I need to work on my game and apply these in tournaments to see [if it works for me]," she said in a virtual interaction conducted by the Sports Authority of India on Sunday.
She added, "Sabre is a very fast event and it's not like you can get time between touches, [you have to] think and decide in the milliseconds so I think it's still a risk to try new techniques in a tournament. I need to take that risk in National Games and see how it works."
Bhavani is currently ranked 42 in the world in sabre and finished 21st at the World Championship in July and 13 at the Asian Championship in June, reaching the second round in both. She had lost early in the two World Cups held this year.
She admitted that training for the mental aspect is very important for her right now and she views all competitions from that lens. "Every competition is important for me as a fencer to technically improve myself and also the mental aspect," she said about her participation in the National Games.
"Every competition has a different level [of competition] and opponents, you have to be flexible to adapt to all kinds of players and situations and still perform your best. I look at every competition that way because I want to be ready, whether it is a domestic or an international competition or the Asian Games."
"It is more for mental training as well. Yes, we have one year for Asian Games and before that, we have Olympic qualifications starting next April. That mental stress is going to be different," she added.
The National Games also provide a marker of how Bhavani has raised the standard of fencing in India. At the previous edition in 2015, she was a junior who won two golds. She will now be coming in as the best-ever Indian fencer.
Comparing the situation of fencing then and now, Bhavani said she had no opportunity for international competitions as a junior whereas now there are set programs for overseas exposure.
"Earlier we did not have enough support, we went for maybe one or two competitions in a year. For example, as a junior, I never took part in any world-level competition. When I was in the cadet level I took part in the junior competition because I was in the U-17 category. Sometimes that lack of experience at the junior level affects me on the senior level too. To bring that experience, I need to train abroad with other international players regularly to improve myself.
"Right now, the Fencing Association of India are sending athletes and their coaches abroad for training and junior competitions. That's very important for their confidence and the basic experience will help them in senior and bigger tournaments. I can see that in the last World Cup we sent 12 women sabre fencers, that's the first time there were so many Indians in an international competition. That's a big change," she said.
What India needs now, according to Bhavani, is time and exposure so that a fencing strategy specific to Indians can be made.
"Not just the athletes, the coaches also need to go for international competitions and understand the level of other athletes and [see] what kind of technical aspects we need to work on according to our natural ability. Each country has different styles, standards and strategies and we need to understand what works for Indian athletes. For that we need more international exposure," she said.