Ibtihaj Muhammad: The Olympic Fencer Is Charting Her Own Path

Ibtihaj Muhammad winning a fencing match at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Ibtihaj Muhammad found fencing when she was 12 years old, growing up in Maplewood, N.J., or rather, her mother, Denise, found it for her. As a practicing Muslim, her mother was eager to find a sport that would allow her daughter to dress modestly, to honor Islam.

This launched an unexpected, barrier-breaking career for Ms. Muhammad, who, in 2016, became the first Muslim woman to represent the United States at the Olympics wearing a hijab. She was part of the women’s saber team that won a bronze medal in Rio de Janeiro, which continued her meteoric rise to fame. Time magazine placed Ms. Muhammad on its list of “The 100 Most Influential People”; Hillary Clinton tweeted about her during the presidential campaign; and a Barbie doll has been modeled after her.

But in her new memoir, “Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream,” which is out this month along with a young readers edition, Ms. Muhammad documents the alienation she felt from her teammates and coach, the death threats that she said neither the United States Fencing Association nor the Olympic committee took seriously, and her feelings of anxiety and despair.

In a phone conversation from Los Angeles, Ms. Muhammad, 32, was reflective in discussing her life, the discrimination she faced growing up in a predominantly white suburb, where her political activism might lead and why the Olympic experience was bittersweet.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

It’s interesting that your mother pushed you toward fencing, in part because it is an accessible sport for observant Muslims. Were you skeptical at first?

I didn’t know much about it. But I have never been averse to trying new things. I didn’t love it at first, but I did go home and look into fencing a little bit more. I remember looking at the Top 10 schools and seeing if they had fencing teams. I thought I could use it as a way to beef up my resume.

What are the biggest misconceptions about female Muslim athletes that you are trying to dispel?

We exist. For the Olympic team, for the United States, I’ve changed the narrative for the Muslim community in the way that we’ve been perceived. And if you take that a step further and look at the way Muslim women see themselves, these young girls who haven’t had anyone at this level of sport do that on the world stage — compete at the highest level of sport. To do that is changing the way Muslim women think about themselves and perceive themselves.

When you were in Paris, you were approached for autographs for the first time at a world championship. What was that like?

I was very confused. It was my first world championship. I was so excited. For me, it already felt like a huge achievement. This was in the middle of Paris. We were competing at the Grand Palais. The whole thing is unfolding like a fairy tale, in the sense that Paris is the epicenter of fencing in the world. In France, a place that has struggled with the idea of hijab and with the Muslim community, I feel like it was a moment for even French citizens to see a Muslim woman on television.

I think what people will find most surprising about your story is the amount of resistance you faced from Ed Korfanty, your coach,and teammates on Team U.S.A. Why do you think they were so resistantto your success?

It’s hard to put your finger on it. A lot of it has to do with fencing being an individual sport. It’s a very competitive, contentious environment. There’s a limited number of spots on the team.

For me, that initial pushback was not there until I started to win. Initially, it was just kind of like, “You’re different. Let’s ask weird questions about hijab and prayers.” But they were really more out of pure ignorance than hatred. Really silly things like, “Do you use a magic carpet to pray?” Stuff like that. These are the kind of “microaggressions” I had to endure. But then I realized that as I started to climb and do better, the energy changes because then you’re seen as a threat. My teammates would do really silly things, like not telling me there was a team practice. Then it became very clear: “We don’t want you here.”

Having to navigate that space, unfortunately, can be common for athletes who are among the first in their sport.

After the Olympics, you write in your book that you received a death threat. Was that your first one?

No. I’ve had quite a few.

Did that start after the Olympics?

I had them before the Games. The interesting thing about that is the United States Fencing Association and the Olympic committee didn’t take them as seriously as I thought that they should. They would send them to me, which, to me, plays a part in my mental state as an athlete. I don’t think that it was helpful at all. If anything, as a national governing body, I would hope that the U.S.A. Fencing would want to protect me, and I never felt that from them. It just always seemed like a burden to even have to deal with it. And what more of a burden is there than having a death threat made against you?

You’ve been outspoken about President Trump. Have you always been interested in politics?

One of my majors at Duke University was international relations so I’ve always had an interest in politics. But I think that this current political climate is more difficult for the Muslim and black communities than it has been in a really long time. The Muslim community has it harder now than after September 11. It’s like you’re backed into a corner. You can either continue to operate as normal, as an athlete, and pretend that you have not changed, or you can use your platform to help change minds and change your situation.

Do you have any interest in running for office?

I went to a fund-raiser a few days ago for Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor in Georgia. Listening to her story and her background, for a brief moment, I saw myself in that space as a politician. Honestly, I had never thought of it before. But I’m also one of those people who thinks they can do anything.

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