Olympic bronze medalist fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad spoke about her journey and identity at Heritage Hall in the HUB Thursday night as part of the SPA Distinguished Speaker Series. She told her story and answered questions before a packed house during the discussion.
Muhammad, a Maplewood, NJ native, became the first American Olympian to wear a hijab in competition during the 2016 Rio Games. As one of the few athletes of color in the sport, she broke down boundaries and used her voice on the way to helping the United States saber fencing team claim a bronze medal in the team competition in Rio.
Her journey to making history all comes back to two influential people in her life: her mother and Peter Westbrook, an Olympic medalist in 1984 that has since helped inner-city kids in New York learn to fence with his foundation.
Muhammad described her childhood as active with her mother, Denise, encouraging her and her siblings to pursue as many sports as possible. Through all the sports she played — volleyball, tennis, and many others — Muhammad always had to adjust her uniform to adhere to her modest beliefs.
Just before Muhammad began high school, her mother was driving by the gym and saw athletes fully covered. She wasn’t aware that the sport was fencing, but she knew she wanted her daughter to try it.
At a meet during a season at Columbia High School, Muhammad was approached about the Peter Westbrook Foundation.
“Someone came up to me and told me about black people fencing in New York City and I was so offended like ‘how dare you come and approach me because I’m different,'” Muhammad laughed. “But I went home, told my mom, and Google’d ‘black people New York City fencing’ and learned about the Peter Westbrook Foundation.”
Muhammad credits Westbrook with helping her really break into the sport, but also the foundation with helping her offset the expensive cost, something she said she wouldn’t have been able to afford without the Peter Westbrook Foundation, of competing at a high level.
Her journey continued to Duke University following high school, but it wasn’t until she had almost graduated, with her eyes on law school, that she saw a future for herself in fencing. Noticing the lack of black or Muslim athletes on the United States fencing team, Muhammad set out to make the team despite a lack of international experience and belief from those around her.
In the beginning of her post-collegiate career, it was just her coach that had faith that she could be one of the best in the world. She pursued different domestic competitions until she finally landed a spot on the national team in 2010 — three years removed from her college career.
She didn’t make the 2012 Olympic team, but wasn’t disappointed with the result until it weighed on her that she was still missing the title of Olympian. Becoming more engaged with the sport over the course of the next four years, Muhammad landed a spot on the 2016 Olympic team despite the lack of inspiration she had from before her time with U.S. Fencing.
“I really wish I wasn’t the first,” Muhammad said. “I wish that there was a Muslim woman when I was a kid that I could look up to. But now, I feel like that’s something I can do.”
Truthfully, she said she was satisfied with just becoming an Olympian, but bringing home a medal with Team USA is a blessing for her.
She succeeded despite the fact that she sees her teammates as competitors more often than she has them as allies, or the fact that the team is lacking that close-knit training style that other countries have with the Americans separating into different camps across the country to prepare. It all comes down to the idea that fencing is an individual sport for her and she’s had her issues with the national team.
“The national coach never liked me,” Muhammad said. “There was always this sentiment that I was replaceable.”
Now with the Olympics behind her, Muhammad’s searching for what’s next in her life. A conversation with her brother helped create her own clothing line, Louella, specific to bringing the modest fashion industry forward in the United States.
The Olympian is still fencing, but she is starting to feel the post-games lull she’s always heard about. Originally seeing fencing as a means to an end, a love for competition drove her forward beyond her college days. Now despite saying she doesn’t have a true love for the sport, anything could happen in terms of competing for the next couple of years.
“I am the only athlete you’ll meet that doesn’t have an affinity for their sport,” Muhammad said. “I just got back from a World Cup in China and went back to training, asking myself ‘Why am I here?'”