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Life

Bring It On

Ibtihaj Muhammed was the first Muslim American to medal at the Olympics. But her biggest hurdle was finding a sense of belonging in a predominantly white sport.

woman in hijab holding fencing sword
Illustration by Gel Jamlang

I distinctly remember the first time I felt like I fit in as a fencer. It was an unseasonably cold day in May toward the end of my junior year in high school, and my mom and I had taken the train from our home in Maplewood, New Jersey, to Penn Station. We made our way to the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a huge sports center in midtown, entering to the sounds of fencing blades clashing and the smell of hard-earned sweat.

It was the largest fencing club I’d ever been in, and almost everyone there was some shade of brown. Dozens of kids were getting fencing lessons from coaches who were also brown. It was such a stark contrast to what I was used to seeing in my past three years of practicing the sport. I felt like a five-year-old at Disneyland: fencers who looked like me. Coaches who looked like me. To walk into a room full of fencers and not feel like the odd one out, to not feel eyes surveying my body, pausing on my hijab, wondering if my race or religion would prove an impediment to my success on the strip, seemed like a dream. I could feel the tension in my shoulders release as an immediate sense of belonging settled over me. I couldn’t wait to train there after school.

During my high-school fencing career, I could anticipate the stares that would follow me around a fencing match. Because it’s such a niche and predominantly white sport, I often felt all eyes land on me when I walked into a gymnasium for the first time. It’s glaringly obvious when you’re the only black person with a hijab in the tournament. Most of the time, I couldn’t wait to fence, so I could put on my mask and blend in with the other athletes.

When I was growing up, my parents made an extra effort to make sure that their children felt represented and like they belonged. But I was quite well-versed in being the odd girl out in fencing and beyond — the only black girl, the only Muslim girl, the only hijabi. My mom was a teacher and often brought home books about African American history (something severely lacking in my high school’s curriculum), and we were allowed to have only brown dolls, which meant I’d often come home from the toy store empty-handed because I already owned the one or two they had in stock. I’d even sew little hijabs for my dolls to make them look more like me.

No matter how much I wanted to fit in, or how hard I tried to find evidence that I did belong, my hijab signaled that I was different and I’d never be just like everyone else. When I got to university, the staring continued; I couldn’t help but think that people were looking at me, wondering what I was doing in their world.

I’ve never gotten used to the stares. When I got to a fencing match, I had to remind myself that once my mask was on, I could prove how good of an athlete I was. If people were surprised to see someone who looked like me on the strip, let them be surprised — and then amazed when they saw that I could hold my own.

Seeing past other people’s expectations and preconceived notions of me became one of my biggest challenges. That was compounded by the extra obstacles that came with fencing as a Muslim woman, like belligerent TSA agents pointing to my hijab and saying “Off, or no flight” while traveling to training camps. There weren’t any other hijab-wearing Muslim women at the elite levels of sports who I could look up to or who could inspire my quest to become a world-class athlete. I had to chart my own path and maximize my expectations for myself. It was clear no one else could do that for me.

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But when I embarked on the journey to qualify for the United States national team after college, the national coach and my U.S. teammates had even bigger challenges for me. I had made the team after a year of intense training, and when I told my fencing family at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, they were elated. They knew how significant it was that one of us had made it — our unwritten foundation motto was “When one wins, we all win.” But as the national team and I worked toward qualifying for the Olympics, they made me wade through a minefield of microaggressions and psychological warfare that left me feeling suffocated by dismissal and exclusion. Team management intentionally wouldn’t book hotels for me while traveling for world cups and left me off of important emails. The national coach would frequently blame me for team losses and often pigeon hole me as only physically strong (a fate common for black athletes), rather than capable of tactical fencing.

One day, during a fifteen-hour flight to a training camp in Beijing, I arrived at a moment where I said enough is enough — I’d spent years fighting for every win, every opportunity, every ounce of respect on my path to becoming an Olympian, and I was no longer going to allow other people to affect how I perceived myself or restrict what I was capable of. When people stared me down at a tournament, I didn’t know if it was a race thing or a religious thing or that they weren’t ready for change, but I finally realized: Why was that burden on me to figure out? I didn’t have the time to acquire their baggage or analyze why anyone wanted to make me feel inferior. I had a job to do on that team, and that job was winning a medal.

I wanted to win an Olympic medal to prove that it could be done. I wanted to change the negative narratives about Muslims that we’ve all lived with for far too long. I wanted black and brown kids to see me win, allowing them to grasp that aspiration, even if it’s unconscious, giving them the ability to believe what was once impossible was possible. I wanted to win so that the next time someone saw a fencer wearing a hijab, they’d know that nothing about their religion was holding them back. I wanted to win so that people could see themselves in spaces where they may have never been welcome. I wanted to win because I was sure that there were people who, along the way to becoming an elite athlete, were deterred because they didn’t believe it was possible to beat the odds that were stacked against them.

Winning the bronze medal at the Olympics along with my team was the sweetest feeling I’d ever had. I proved to myself that I — and everyone who has ever been made to feel different — have every right to demand a place at the table in whatever field they’re pursuing. Looking back at the Olympic Games, I don’t remember if there were any eyes uncomfortably fixated on me. What I do remember are the cheers of “USA! USA!” But to the people who still can’t help but stare: Go ahead. You’re going to love what comes next.

Ibtihaj Muhammad is an Olympic medalist, activist, entrepreneur, and author of Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream — out July 24.