Penn State

Ibtihaj Muhammad, first American Olympian to compete in hijab, speaks at Penn State

Ibtihaj Muhammad won a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics. On Thursday night, she told her story at Penn State.
Ibtihaj Muhammad won a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics. On Thursday night, she told her story at Penn State. The Washington Post, file

Ibtihaj Muhammad said she is probably the only Olympic athlete you’ll meet who isn’t in love with his or her sport.

“I don’t love fencing, don’t really know why I’m doing it right now, haven’t quite figured out what comes next, so I’m still fencing,” Muhammad said. “I know that sounds crazy.”

Muhammad also happens to be the only African-American or Muslim woman on the United States Fencing Team. And at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Muhammad made history as the first Muslim-American woman to take home a medal after famously wearing her hijab while competing (another first in United States Olympic history).

Sitting on stage in Heritage Hall at the HUB-Robeson Center Thursday night, Muhammad spoke of her development as an Olympic athlete, and what it means to represent Muslim women on Team USA.

An athlete from a young age, Muhammad said she played several sports throughout her childhood — from softball to track and field to tennis — but always struggled to make her uniforms accommodate her needs.

“All the Muslim women in the audience can tell you how much of a struggle it is to spend hours upon hours at Modell’s trying to find the right long-sleeve top to go underneath the uniform or to work out in the gym, to find the right pants to go underneath the uniform,” Muhammad said. “It was always this constant struggle, and not a lot of fun as a kid, as you can imagine.”

It was at 12 years old that Muhammad first discovered fencing, with its long-sleeved and panted uniform. Less than a year later, Muhammad joined her high school’s fencing team.

Almost 10 years later as a senior studying international relations and on the fencing team at Duke University, Muhammad said she hadn’t considered a professional fencing career until after considering medical and law school, then glancing over Team USA’s website.

“When I looked at the U.S. Fencing Team, in particular, there had never been a woman of color on the United States Woman Sabre Team, and there had never been a Muslim to represent Team USA in the national competition at all,” Muhammad said, and she was inspired to become the first.

Among fencers who had been competing on a world stage since their teen years, Muhammad said it was difficult entering the ring so late in the game. But with the encouragement of her coach who believed in her abilities even before Muhammad had a world ranking, she climbed to the top and got on Team USA.

Muhammad made it clear, however, that even after making the team, then qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games, it wasn’t easy for her to be a part of the U.S. Fencing Team.

“It’s not particularly easy for me, not just as a Muslim woman, but as a woman of color, and oftentimes traveling in a space where I’m the only one of the competition who looks like me,” Muhammad said.

She pushes through this hardship, however, in the effort of creating a more inclusive atmosphere on the team for future minority athletes.

“I think one of the things that has really pushed me in solidifying not just my position on Team USA, but motivated me to even qualify for an Olympic team, was so that it’d be a space that feels welcome to people who are normally underrepresented or not represented on teams like the U.S. Fencing Team,” Muhammad said.

To Muhammad, “there’s a greater story to tell” than just her own. As one of 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, Muhammad said she is happy she is able to represent Muslim women and “change the narrative (from) what we’ve all been fed for so long.”

“I love that just being present and being a member of Team USA challenges that forced narrative that we’ve been fed about who a Muslim is, what she looks like, whether or not she talks, that she’s oppressed, that she wears all black, that she’s Arab,” Muhammad said. “I feel like me being on Team USA challenges all of those things just by standing on the strip at the Olympic Games.”

Muhammad said as an athlete, she also previously struggled to conform to the expectation to stay silent on politics and “just perform.” But with her platform, she believes she owes it to her community to speak out.

“I think being in the position of participating in sports at the elite level, you have a choice to make. You can use your platform for good, or you can use your platform to serve yourself,” Muhammad said. “For me, it’s always been about using my platform to be a proponent of change and to be a proponent of good.”

Sarah Mearhoff is a Penn State journalism student.