If you’re trying to figure out how Ibtihaj (IB-tee-haj) Muhammad defied the stereotypes to become one of the world’s fiercest fencers — she’ll be the first American to wear a hijab while competing for the U.S. when the Rio games open next week — you may not have to go any further than this mundane tale.
Back in March, she was pulling up to her sister’s Faizah’s apartment in Brooklyn and saw a parking spot open. She waited, signaled and was preparing to pull in when a truck stole the spot. She backed up and began yelling, only calming down at the urging of her sister, who has become accustomed to taming Ibtihaj’s competitiveness.
Not that the 30-year-old Muhammad has let it go. She’s telling this anecdote weeks later, angry as the day it happened. But redemption for past slights has been the theme of her life since 2012, when she narrowly missed making the Olympics. Making things right has driven her for four years, and she’s not about to lose her edge just because she reached one goal.
She was so close to making the team in 2012. Fencing isn’t like swimming or track and field, where one result at the Olympic trials can decide if someone is an Olympian or not. Results from an entire schedule of international events add up in points, and those points dictate who is on the team. Muhammad, known as Ibti by those who know her well, missed making the London team by one spot.
Still, she was recognized by Muslims as a special member of the community. They would often still call her an Olympian. An experience she had when meeting with young girls at an event refocused her: Someone she considered a friend went out of her way to make it clear to the girls that Muhammad had failed to make the team. In that moment she vowed to herself to not miss out on her next chance.
She has better things to focus on these days. Muhammad, who won gold with the U.S. saber team at the world championships in 2014, is ranked eighth in the world. She is not going to Rio to be merely a symbol. She is going for one reason, she says: a gold medal.
Yet it is impossible to ignore what it says to have a Muslim woman represent the United States in the Olympics in the same year the Republican nominee for president has proposed barring Muslims from the country.
“I felt like it’s been this dream that developed amongst my family, my friends, my community, and I think that helped me to get where I am,” Muhammad said. “It seemed really important to everyone. Just to shatter those stereotypes that Muslim women couldn’t achieve certain things.”
While there have been plenty of great Muslim athletes in the United States in the past, the most accomplished ones are men. Muhammad Ali. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Hakeem Olajuwon. With Ibtihaj as a role model for Muslim women, that can change.
Muhammad’s mother Denise often hears from other Muslim parents. Many are from countries where girls were not allowed play sports. They didn’t think their daughters could wear hijab and still participate. Seeing Muhammad fence changed their minds.
“There’s kids who can convince their parents, at least let me try. Sports is all-inclusive. It gives you an introduction into a community where sometimes it’s difficult, when you’re a minority — be it nationality or religious minority,” Denise Muhammad said.
When Ibtihaj first tried fencing, she was 12 years old and in a local fencing coach’s garage. The coach had been recommended by a neighbor, and Denise wanted Ibti to give it a try. She hated it.
“As a Muslim kid, it was weird. I had somebody, a guy, fixing my arms, fixing my legs, teaching me positions, and it was uncomfortable,” she said.
She tried it again in high school. This time, she liked the sport more, but her high school coach insisted she tried the epee. Fencers believe the weapon they choose speaks to their personality. Epee fencers are more cerebral. Foil fencers are the popular kids — take one look at the U.S. men’s foil team for Rio, and you’ll think you’re looking at a boyband. But saber? Saber is the 100-meter dash, the 50-meter freestyle, the vault of the fencing world. While epee and foil turn into more of a chess match, with competitors taking measured steps before moving to take a shot, saber matches are fast and aggressive.
When she switched to saber later in her high school career, the stage was set for her to become the woman who fenced with the first lady in Times Square. She rose through fencing’s ranks quickly after high school, earning a scholarship to Duke, where she was a three-time All-American. After graduating in 2007, she juggled fencing at the international level with coaching her high school team. She finished in the top 25 in the world in 2010-12, but it wasn’t enough to make the Olympic team, to earn a shot to win a medal — to grab for the goal every young fencer has.
Her focus on making the 2016 team took on an almost-obsessive nature. She started cross-training, sought out books and magazines on how to get better, and worked with a sports psychologist.
“I watched how it broke people around me when they didn’t qualify. It literally shattered their world. I knew I would never be like that,” she said. “I could have easily walked away from the sport. I felt unfulfilled, in a sense that I wanted to leave my mark on the sport. I wanted to provide that piece of diversity to the Olympic team, and that was really my driving force that got me here.”
She worked constantly with her coaches Peter Westbrook and Akhnaten “Akhi” Spencer-El at the Peter Westbrook Foundation in Manhattan. When the Muhammad family was at a fencing competition while Ibtihaj was in high school, Denise was impressed with a group of young African-American fencers, all wearing black and gold jackets, in a room of mostly white fencers. They ran into each other again when the Muhammeds attended a film premiere about Westbrook’s life, and Ibtihaj was invited to try fencing with the foundation. Though she would have to take a train an hour each way into the city from Maplewood, N.J., it turned into a perfect match.
Spencer-El is her day-to-day coach, while Westbrook runs the foundation. Westbrook fenced in the 1976 Olympics and won bronze at the 1984 Games. The son of an African-American G.I and the Japanese woman he met while serving in the Korean war, Westbrook faced many of the same challenges Muhammad does now. As a mixed-race child living in Newark in the 1970s, he routinely faced racism. His mother — who raised him by herself after his father left — bribed him to try fencing, and in the sport, he found a place to channel his anger. He later started the Peter Westbrook Foundation to use fencing as a way to help students, particularly in underserved communities, who had struggled as he did.
When she was asked to remove her hijab by a volunteer at SXSW in March, she tweeted about the incident but then tried to forget about it. It’s how she has reacted to many of the instances of hatred and bigotry she has faced. Talk about it, raise awareness, and then move on.
Westbrook’s tutelage is apparent in her actions.
“Sometimes, a lot of us like to look at the negative things people say about African-Americans and Muslims. Sometimes that can affect you. Sometimes that can make you very angry,” he said. “Sometimes that can make you wallow a little bit or make you feel bad about yourself. You can’t let that make you feel bad about yourself. You have to use that to go to higher heights.”
Westbrook isn’t the coach you’ll hear yelling across a fencing strip. His voice is soft and reassuring, but he carries the authority of a man who has shepherded four fencers to the Olympics. He knew Muhammad had the potential to make the Olympics, but it was up to her to take the next step after 2012.
“Sometimes, that will break someone’s spirit,” Westbrook said. “You have to make sure you encourage and nourish that negativity, nourish that pain, and use that for success for the future. Ibti was able to do that.”
The trait Westbrook and Spencer-El didn’t need to nourish was her competitiveness. Muhammed is one of five children, and she constantly tried to keep up with her older brother, Qarib. Still today, she and her sisters race each other from the train stop in New Jersey to the car.
In practice, Muhammad never takes a day off. Keeth Smart, who won Olympic silver in 2008, trains with the Westbrook Foundation and has often worked with Muhammad. There are times when he finds himself laughing, asking her not to take practice so seriously.
“I might fence for fun one practice, and another practice, might go hard. With Ibti, she practices hard every single moment. She wants to win every touch. She’s fighting tooth and nail for every touch,” Smart said.
“When you get to practice, if you’re practicing with Ibti, you’re practicing and practicing hard. If you’re not practicing hard, you’re not practicing with her,” Spencer-El said.
For Muhammad, it’s about simple time management. She trains for three hours every night, and cross-trains during the day. Her life is much too busy to waste any time in the gym.
“I think of the time I have in the gym as sacred time. I’m there to do a job and I have to execute that job, and execute that job to the best of my ability,” she said.
Her time has become even more valuable since making the Olympic team. Muhammad has been pointed out by President Barack Obama and was named one ofTime Magazine’s most fascinating people. Her phone is constantly buzzing, and she welcomed training and competing in China because she couldn’t be reached.
“People are pulling at you in every direction, wanting interviews, wanting every moment of your time, you have family and friends wanting you to come here and speak, it’s overwhelming,” she said.
During the month of April, she attended USA Fencing’s Division I nationals, where she met with me. She also took part in the espnW Women’s Sports Summit, shot a commercial with Visa, attended a fencing fundraiser in New York with Tim Gunn, spoke at the Ideas Festival in her hometown of Maplewood, and joined the First Lady in Times Square for the 100 Days to Rio celebration. This was in addition to training every day.
Through it all Muhammad has tried to focus on her next goal.
“I thought qualifying would be this really happy and jovial moment,” she said. “But at the end of the day, you’re a competitor. I’m one of those people who always sets goals for myself. I set a goal and then I move onto the next one. I set this goal for myself. I was able to achieve it. So now I set the next one. I have to do well in Rio. This immense level of stress has taken over.”
Smart walked down this path before she did. He was one of the Westbrook Foundation’s first Olympic successes, so he also understands what she is experiencing. He has been there with her as she navigates the rarefied air of being an Olympic trailblazer.
“Fencing with all of that pressure is a lot for anyone. She’s been able to do really well under a really excruciating situation with pressure,” he said.
Muhammad has become well-known within the Muslim community. Since 2012, she has been asked to speak at mosques, universities and community centers. After making the Olympic team, her reach became broader. ESPN and SXSW came calling and asked her to be a part of their events. But when Denise looks at her daughter, she sees a woman who doesn’t fit or perpetuate pervasive stereotypes of Muslim women in America.
“She’s never really fit a ‘predetermined expectation’ for Muslim women. That we’re quiet and submissive. Unheard. Intelligent, but not articulate. She doesn’t fit that mold at all,” Denise said. “She is expressive. She does have an opinion. She’s vocal. She speaks well, she’s confident. Not saying Muslim women aren’t confident, but I think there’s an expectation people believe that they’re not really confident, that they’re shy.”
Ibtihaj is anything but shy. She speaks out when she sees injustice. On Twitter and Snapchat, she will bring attention to important causes, like the plight of refugees. When that volunteer asked her to take off her hijab at SXSW earlier, she spoke out — and didn’t touch her scarf.
“When she feels something is right, it could be a debate, but she’ll fight to the death until you agree. Very competitive, and that’s what I think makes her a great athlete,” Spencer-El said.
Her willingness to fight for what she needed started early in life. Muhammed played for her high school volleyball team while also fencing at the Peter Westbrook Foundation. Even as coaches pushed her to quit the team to focus on fencing, she held her ground. This meant a grueling schedule where she would practice volleyball until 6. Denise would pick her up with dinner in hand and take her to the train station so Ibti could make the one-hour train ride to New York for fencing. She would eat dinner and take care of her homework on the train before fencing for three hours, and then turning around to come home.
Her schedule is just as grueling now, as she juggles running a fashion line along with preparing for the Olympics. On the day we met in Richmond, there was a shoot happening in Los Angeles, and she was being sent the latest photos on her phone. The images were mostly of women who, like Muhammed, were clad in the hijab, though a few did not cover their heads. The shirts were long and gauzy, with loose-fitting pants underneath. They weren’t the kind of clothes that make the pages of Vogue, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t fashionable. Vibrant colors, interesting details on the arms and pretty fabrics make up the line, named Louella after Muhammed’s grandmother.
She examines each picture closely. She’s looking for the little details that she expects to be there — the fit and the flow of each item. Muhammed sends a text after looking at one of the pictures. She wants to be there, supervising each shot.
“I’m practicing delegating,” she said while letting out a long sigh.
She started Louella after struggling to find clothes that would fit her guidelines for modesty that were at a reasonable price. Wearing hijab doesn’t mean not embracing her own beauty. She wears gorgeous scarves that match her outfit, and her makeup is always impeccable. When she met Sanya Richards Ross, the gold medalist asked Muhammed who did her makeup. Muhammed laughed when she explained she did her own.
With Louella, she wanted to give more women the chance to wear modest clothes without having to spend a fortune or turn to overseas outlets. She partnered with her brother, and started manufacturing clothes at factories in the U.S. For her, Louella is about serving her community. Keeping manufacturing domestic is key.
“One of the manufacturers I work with only employs women that are often times single mothers. I love that. Not only is it hard work to find a manufacturer that is a woman that owns her own manufacturing business, but she hires women!” Muhammed said.
It’s also about ensuring her life has some balance.
“When I look at some of my teammates, and they fence, and maybe work with in fencing, and they’re always in fencing. That can never be me,” she said. “I need to have something where I can totally walk away and not focus on fencing at all.”
But for now, all of her focus is on August 8, the day she will attempt to win a medal in the individual saber competition, and August 13, when she and her American teammates will try to bring home a team gold. It’s not about the commercials or the speeches or being a symbol for a people who are often questioned, stereotyped and misunderstood. It’s about wearing a star-spangled helmet over her hijab and fencing on the biggest stage in sports.