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An Indian fencer lent a competitor her electric jacket at World Championships, now she gets a surprise award | Sport-others News

India’s Foil fencer Maria Akshita doesn’t quite know who precisely the competitor was on Piste No.2 at the World Championships in Milan, back in July.

Maria was readying to have a go on Piste No.3 next, revving herself up to battle her American opponent, the former world junior champion Lauren Scruggs.

Anyone who’s fenced knows how zoned into a pre-match shadow practice fencers tend to be, on the sidelines just before a face-off. Yet, from the corner of her eye, Maria saw some anxious commotion on the adjacent piste. Then an official furiously approached her team. When they came to her, she didn’t waste a minute, removed her own electric jacket, and lent it to the complete stranger who went ahead with her bout.

Maria’s own match got delayed as she waited, and then when she resumed after strapping on the gear, she would lose and nurse her disappointment heading home. The 23-year-old from Chennai didn’t think much of the incident. Until in November, when she received a formal invite to attend the world body FIE’s annual awards in Egypt. These are reserved for the best-ranked fencers around the world, so she was stumped initially. Until she was told it was the Fair Play Award, and the Indian federation would tweet, “Respect and discipline in sports never go unnoticed!’

Accustomed to helping fellow fencers, and having received her fair share of help in Indian tournaments — and at times not — Maria didn’t think it was anything extraordinary. But at the cut-throat Worlds where athletes furiously guard their equipment, her simple act of helping was given due attention.

“Actually, we were in different pools, and she requested everyone from her pool to help her with the electric jacket, but nobody did. She was surprised and thanked me but I never caught her name or country,” Maria says, back home now with the rimmed trophy.

Festive offer

“She was standing in the middle of the piste when the officials came to me. I usually help everyone because at 14, I remember my equipment broke and I asked everyone around, but noone helped me. I remember being so scared at that time. That was the day I decided, I’d help if anyone faced this,” she adds.

Lending equipment – jackets, masks, swords – can be extremely stressful, for fear of it being broken and twice she remembers the borrowers not replacing it. “But I remember when this happened to me as a teen, coaches, officials, opponents around me told me to just withdraw. It was in 2014, and my dad had to rush from work buying a new jacket,” she recalls.

“They kept saying, opt out. But I told them I would win gold. And I won it also,” she recalls. It was a mere state championship, but it left an enduring memory as she resolved to help stranded fencers if she could, because electric equipment breaking down is rather common. Sometimes, the spares don’t function.

It was the second World Championships of her career for the Chennai woman, who trains at SAI, Guwahati. Her mother Helena, a homemaker, who initiated Maria into the sport, says, “It’s no big deal she helped. Sometimes she’s received help, so it’s good to repay. There’s no grudge against anyone who doesn’t help either. Ultimately, you have to be responsible for your own equipment. But the award was a good surprise.”

Fencer 2 Maria Akshita with her award. (Express Photo)

Helena, who grew up in Nagercoil and had no sporting strand in her family, however caught a fancy for the eclectic sport, watching a snippet of it on television in her school days. “Those days we only saw bits of Olympics on Doordarshan. I loved the white mask and sword immediately but my family didn’t care for sports. I decided my child would play this sport. Fortunately, Maria’s father’s side was sporting,” she adds.

Helena’s sister-in-law, an athletics coach, would urge her to enlist her niece into track & field, but she wasn’t interested till she heard of a female coach at JL Nehru Stadium in Chennai for fencing. “I was told immediately that she had the right built. Her father, a marine engineer, gives financial support. I help her with moral support,” she adds.

“I’d also seen heroines fence in French and English movies, so I was very happy when things worked out for Maria in my favourite sport,” says Helena.

Maria, 5 feet 9 now has good reach and perfectly long strides for Foil fencing, which combines speed and hand movements of sabre and epee. “My hand reach and lunge are good, but I need to improve my speed and technique. It doesn’t take much to learn kindness though,” she smiles.

An international level jacket can cost upto Rs 16,000 and the family faced some crunch when she moved from domestic gear to imported one. The Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu would chip in with a Rs 30,000 reimbursement. But it was in the juniors that she would often struggle.

“Initially, it was just an extracurricular activity. Then I slowly fell in love with fencing, and
started winning. But weapons, masks breaking is common in India, here we always help,” she says.

Fencer Maria Akshita’s mother Helena. (Express Photo)

Hailing from the same city as iconic CA Bhavani Devi, Maria has set her goals high, but knows it’s tough to break through in this event. She had a month-long stint abroad and her best finish has been 41st at Asian Championships, but she is willing to brave it out in distant Guwahati with different food, to get better at her sport.

“I was surprised to win this, and grateful for recognition. Now I want to win medals. I know equipment hassles are very stressful in fencing, but I’ll never stop helping others,” she says.

‘Maintain distance or I might stab u’ Maria’s WhatsApp tag goofs, riffing off her sport’s emoticon. But when approached for assistance at the biggest meet of the year, Maria didn’t flinch and generously parted with her gear.

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