RIO DE JANEIRO – Had she wanted, Ibtihaj Muhammad could have remained relatively anonymous. Fencing isn’t a sport followed by many Americans, and when she’s engaged in swordplay, it’s impossible to see behind the silver mask and head-to-toe protective gear.
Once she reached the elite level, though, Muhammad no longer saw that as an option. Monday, when she steps onto the piste in Rio, she will become the first American athlete to wear a hijab — the traditional head covering of Muslim women — in Olympic competition. Her primary aim is to win a medal for her country in women’s saber, but she has something bigger in mind as well.
Muhammad, 30, knows she does not fit the perception of a typical U.S. Olympian — which is precisely the point. By stepping into the Summer Games spotlight as herself — a proud, patriotic, black Muslim woman who is among the world’s best fencers — she sees a chance to make it easier for others to be who they are, too.
“It’s a tough political environment we’re in right now,” said Muhammad, from Maplewood, N.J. “I think Muslims are under the microscope. And I’m hoping to change the image people may have of Muslim women.
“I’m blessed to be in this position and be given this platform. When I think of my predecessors, people who have spoken out against bigotry and hate, I feel I owe it not just to myself, but to my community to try to fight it.”
A five-time medalist in team competition at the world championships, Muhammad has taken on many roles. She serves on a U.S. Department of State initiative to empower women and girls through sports. She founded a clothing company, Louella, to create modest yet fashionable women’s apparel.
Muhammad mentors kids through her fencing club, the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York City, and has met with President Obama to discuss the concerns of Muslims in the polarized U.S. political climate. She is so admired by her peers that she was among the candidates to be flag-bearer at the Opening Ceremony for the Rio Games, an honor that went to 18-time gold medalist Michael Phelps.
Earning a place on the Olympic team has increased the demands on her time, yet she enters the Rio Games as the No. 8 seed and has been ranked as high as No. 7 in the world this season.
“It has to be tough, but she’s handling it extremely well,” said Alexander Massialas, one of Muhammad’s Olympic fencing teammates. “She’s never been one to shy away from a fight.”
All of this has sprung from a fencing career that happened almost by accident. Muhammad, who played various sports as a child, discovered fencing while riding in a car with her mother, Denise Garner. When they came to a stop across from a high school, Garner caught a glimpse of people sparring with swords while wearing uniforms that fully covered their bodies.
She urged her daughter to try it. Muhammad didn’t like it at first, but when she switched weapons from epee to saber — trading a more deliberate style for one with more action and flair — she was hooked. Fencing led to a scholarship at Duke University, where she was a three-time All-America, and to medals at five world championships from 2011 through 2015.
In her teens, Muhammad was mostly interested in using fencing as a path to an elite college. She began to see a more universal goal as she rose up the national ranks.
“I remember being a kid and people telling me I didn’t belong in a sport because of my skin color,” she said. “Or people telling me I didn’t belong because I was Muslim. If I could be that source of change, that image for other minorities to see themselves in this space of elite athletics, I would feel fortunate.”
She has embraced that role even when it has not been comfortable. While Muhammad was chasing an Olympic berth last season, terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., increased fear and suspicion of her religion. So did presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for a ban on foreign Muslims entering the U.S.
Muhammad found herself worrying that she might be prevented from getting on an airplane while traveling to a World Cup event. She also got — and continues to receive — ugly messages via social media.
Those pale in comparison, she said, to the notes from girls all over the world, telling her they decided to take up a sport after seeing her. Monday, while Muhammad fences for an Olympic medal, she will be fighting for them, too.
“I’m hoping just my presence on Team USA changes the misconceptions that people have about the Muslim community,” she said. “A lot of people have this one idea of who Muslims are. I think who I am challenges and breaks all those stereotypes, just by standing in place and being a member of Team USA.”