Muslim-American fencer to take stand against hate in Rio Olympics
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is making history with Team USA as the first American to compete in the Summer Olympics while wearing a hijab. After failing to make the 2012 Olympic team, she’s back with a clear objective that goes beyond her desire to win gold.
From The LA Times.com:
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is about to make U.S. Olympic history
Reporters crowd around Ibtihaj Muhammad for the better part of an hour, standing two and three deep, pushing close, a jostling mass of cameras, lights and microphones.
Her smile remains steady, her voice measured as she faces question after question.
“I have a very short window as an athlete,” she says. “And I’m going to try to take advantage.”
Muhammad ranks among the top fencers in the world, but that isn’t what the media asks her about.
At a time of terrorist attacks worldwide and Donald Trump calling for a ban on Muslim immigration, Muhammad’s religion has made her a lightning rod for attention.
Television news crews have followed her through training and President Obama singled her out at a recent event in Baltimore. Time magazine listed her among the 100 most influential people of the year.
Normally a private person, Muhammad has made a point of speaking openly about her life in ways that reach beyond sport.
“It’s a tough political environment we’re in right now,” she told the media at a U.S. Olympic Committee summit in Los Angeles. “Muslims are under the microscope.”
Across the room, Alexander Massialas — the top foil fencer in the world — looks at all the reporters surrounding his teammate and shakes his head.
“It has to be tough, but she’s handling it extremely well,” he says. “She’s never been one to shy away from a fight.”
A half-dozen female athletes wore hijabs at the 2012 London Olympics. The international soccer federation lifted its ban on headscarves in 2014 and basketball followed a year later.
“A step in the right direction,” Muhammad says.
Growing up in New Jersey, one of five kids raised by a father who was a narcotics detective and a mother who taught school, she learned early that appearances make a difference.
A competitive nature led her to sports, but she often felt awkward playing volleyball or running track with her head covered, a uniform pulled over the top of sweat pants and long sleeves.
“I would get stares,” she says. “My skin color, my religion, made other people uncomfortable.”
Riding in the car one day, stopped at a red light, she and her mother glanced at a school building and could see through the windows to where kids practiced an unfamiliar sport in jackets, pants and masks.
“Fencing found me,” Muhammad says. “I wanted a sport where I could be fully covered and I didn’t have to look different.”
An initial try at epee — which can be slower-paced — proved less than satisfying. She switched to the explosive, clanging action of saber.
“I had to be faster on my feet,” she says. “I enjoyed that.”
Quickness and determination fueled her climb up the ranks. Muhammad was on her way to winning state championships in high school and competing for Duke, where she was a three-time All-American while earning degrees in international relations and African studies with a minor in Arabic.
After graduation, she continued fencing with the national program.
Qualifying for the Games can be nerve-racking under the best of circumstances.
As Muhammad chased a spot on the U.S. team, the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino made nightly news and Trump proposed “a total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country. American mosques were being vandalized and Muslim passengers kicked off commercial airlines.
“That was always one of my concerns,” Muhammad says. “Am I going to be allowed to board my flight to make it to my Olympic qualifier?”
The fencing strip was one place where she could shut it all out, putting together a string of podium finishes on the World Cup circuit this winter to secure her spot in Rio.
At that point, she could have chosen to lay low, avoiding distractions, but it wasn’t in her nature.
“For as long as I’ve known her,” Massialas says, “she’s always had an opinion on something.”
Sensing an opportunity to inform the national debate, Muhammad took to social media and appeared on network news, “The Today Show” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” to tell her story.
Obama invited her to that meeting with Muslims, where he challenged her to win gold, adding: “Not to put any pressure on you.” Two months later, she gave Michelle Obama a fencing lesson during a USOC event.
Her public comments were always straightforward — nothing melodramatic. Still, she drew heat.
In April, Muhammad tweeted about a man who followed her down the street, asking if she was going to blow something up. Invited to speak at the South by Southwest festival a month later, she was told to remove her hijab for an accreditation photo. Festival officials later apologized.
She became a target online.
“I just delete them before I can finish reading them,” she says.
Muhammad has kept herself in the public eye for two reasons.
First, she wants to set an example for a Muslim community that, she believes, could do more to encourage girls in sport. Second, she says, “I’m hoping to change the image that people may have of Muslim women.”
“We come in all different shapes, colors and sizes and we come from different backgrounds and we’re productive members of society,” she says. “I want people to see we can even be Olympic athletes.”
The Islamic calendar is slightly shorter than the solar year, so Ramadan gradually shifts across the seasons.
The holy month began in early June this year. Days of fasting and intense prayer forced Muhammad to adjust her training regimen at a critical juncture.
“It’s such a spiritual moment for me as a Muslim,” she says. “But at the same time I have to prepare for the Olympics.”
Getting up before sunrise gave her time to eat a full meal and have an early workout. Drinking extra water and shortening her midday fencing sessions kept her from becoming dehydrated.
After breaking the fast with a large meal at sunset, she made up for lost time by practicing five or six hours into the night.
“I have to be aware of my body,” she says. “Just know that I can’t push myself as far as I could if I wasn’t fasting.”
Talking about Ramadan is another part of her effort to demystify Islam, another way to help America understand the life of Muslims.
“Can I influence the debate?” she asks. “I don’t know.”
There will be one more chance for her to re-shape opinions when she steps onto the strip for the women’s saber competition in Rio. “I’m just trying to do well,” she says. “That’s my plan.”
An Olympic medal might be her most-convincing argument.
Why this American is set to make history in Rio
Team USA fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is set to make history at the Rio Olympics as the first American to compete in the games while wearing a hijab.
Meet Ibtihaj Muhammad, who will be the first American to compete in Olympics in hijabFrom USA TODAY.com:
By: Nate Scott
America, meet Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer from New Jersey who secured a spot on the American Olympic team during an event in Athens, Greece last week. Muhammad will be heading to Rio, where she will make history by becoming the first American to compete in the Olympics in hijab.
While the United States team won’t be formally announced until April 11, Muhammad has secured enough points in the qualifying process to ensure that she will be on the team. Some things to know about Muhammad:
1. THE UNIFORM HELPED HER CHOOSE FENCING
The 30-year-old started fencing in high school. She said the sport’s uniform helped make the decision OK with her family.
“My parents were looking for a sport for me to play where I wouldn’t have to alter the uniform as a Muslim woman,” she said, referring to the fact that a fencer’s uniform requires the body to be completely covered.
2. SHE HAS A CLOTHING LINE
Muhammad is an owner and the spokeswoman for Louella, a company that makes women’s clothing. “There weren’t things that me or my friends would wear,” she said last year. “We wanted something not that just was modest, we wanted something that was affordable.”
3. SHE WAS A 3-TIME ALL-AMERICAN AT DUKE
Muhammad was a standout at Duke University, where she graduated with degrees in international relations and African-American studies.
A Muslim fencer broke stereotypes, but now she wants Olympic gold
By: Maggie Hendricks
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.
Obama praises Muslim American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad during mosque visit
During his first visit to a U.S. mosque in February, President Obama praised fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. Muhammad, set to be the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab.
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 of Time 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.