RIO DE JANEIRO – This is Ibtihaj Muhammad.
“Being an American. Being an African-American. Being Muslim. Being a woman. These are things I can’t change, and that I wouldn’t change for anything,” she said.
What she wants to change, as the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, is the conversation about Muslims.
She wants to change the way they’re perceived, misconceived and threatened by increasingly hateful rhetoric in the United States. She has to, she says, because no American should live in fear in their own county, just because of who they are or what they wear.
This is Ibtihaj Muhammad: an Olympic athlete who gets stalked like a criminal in New York City because she has a traditional Muslim head wrap.
“[I feel unsafe] all the time. I had someone follow me home from practice, trying to report me to the police. And that was right on 28th and 7th in New York City,” she said. “I’m very vocal about these things, especially on social media. Because I want people to know that I’m not an anomaly. I’m not special in any way. I’m a woman who wears hijab. These are my experiences.”
This is Ibtihaj Muhammad: a 30-year-old sabre fencer from Maplewood, New Jersey, who knows her responsibilities as an Olympian extend well beyond the arena in Rio this month.
“I’m hoping just my presence on Team USA changes perceptions people have about the Muslim community. A lot of people have misconceptions about who Muslims are – and what a Muslim woman even looks like. Who I am challenges and shatters those stereotypes,” she said.
“Our conversation about the Muslim community has to change. It’s a slippery slope when you use hateful rhetoric. When you openly use bigoted comments against a group of people, and encourage violence. I hope it changes. I hope it changes fast.”
Muhammad’s path to Rio was unusual and exceptional, both as an athlete and as a role model.
Many fencers are products of a system that identifies them in their early teens and trains them for the next 15 years. But she took up the sport as a 17 year old, and didn’t have her first international competition until she was 23.
“My friends told me not to fence, because only dorks fence,” she said.
But Muhammad saw a sport whose elegance fascinated her and whose uniforms adhered to the rules of her faith, which was something she was searching for. Her arms and legs are covered. Her hijab is worn under a mask.
“It allowed me to be who I am,” she said. “People didn’t look at me as a minority or as a woman. It was simply for my skills-set. Once you put on your uniform, you can’t see who’s behind the mask. That’s what I’ve always appreciated about this sport.”
But even in a sport whose athletes exist in faceless anonymity, Muhammad met friction.
“Very early on in my sport, I remember being told that I didn’t belong because I was African-American or there were things I couldn’t do because I’m a Muslim,” she said.
She overcame those impediments to thrive in her sport. But she knows many, many other minority athletes simply quit instead.
“I know not everybody has the same strength. They can be deterred by comments when they’re younger. So I hope just being vocal about these obstacles, and why they’re wrong, I can inspire the younger generation in face of these comments and misconceptions,” she said. “It’s something we can all relate to: Getting picked on, getting bullied.”
Her history-making appearance at the Rio Games has offered Muhammad a platform for her voice. She was on a panel at SXSW. She’s had gallons of magazine ink dedicated to her. She appeared on ESPN’s “E:60,” which did a 12-minute biographical segment on her:
She’s appeared on “Ellen,” fencing a staff member and trying her best not to fan-girl out:
So what was the bigger thrill? Meeting Ellen, or meeting the President?
“That’s a tough one. I feel like I need to be politically correct,” said Muhammad, with a laugh, having met Barack Obama twice in the last four years. “It was an honor to meet both of them, obviously.”
Her media appearances have been a boost to her fashion line called Louella, that makes clothes that adhere to the traditions of Muslim and some Jewish women. “There was a void in the Muslim community for modest clothing that was affordable and fashionable. You can find them sometimes in the States, but they’re not always cute,” she said.
Her celebrity extended to the early part of the Rio Olympics, where there was serious debate about whether Muhammad, a first-time Olympian, should have been the U.S. flag-bearer in the Opening Ceremonies, an honor that eventually went to swimmer Michael Phelps.
“Honestly, it was an honor to be in the conversation. To have my name in the mix is very telling about our team, and who we are,” she said.
She said she didn’t expect the media swarm that occurred before the Rio Games, but isn’t uncomfortable with the idea that her role model status has outshone her status as a competitor now that she’s arrived in Brazil.
“This whole journey has been a blessing. You have to use your moment to help the people around you,” she said.
Especially in the face of such opposition.
A reporter asks Ibtihaj Muhammad about Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee who has made a ban on all Muslim immigrants a centerpiece of his campaign.
“Who?” she responds.
“Donald Trump,” he repeats it, assuming she hadn’t heard him.
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“Trump. Donald Trump,” he shouts.
“Who?” she says again, committing to the bit.
“Nah, I’m kidding,” she finally says, laughing and moving on to the next question without comment.
While she isn’t addressing Trump by name in Rio, Muhammad talks at length about the rhetoric found in his speeches and at his rallies. As a Muslim-American athlete, that means hearing from young women she’s empowered by her existence and the anonymous hordes of men who are disgusted by it.
“That’s the gift and the curse of social media: You hear from young women all the time, but you also hear from the haters,” she said. “But I want people to know that as hard as they’ve been on me, they don’t even come close to what we saw in the shooting in North Carolina or the rhetoric around the Khan family at the DNC.
“It’s ridiculous. We, as a country, have to change, and I feel like this is a moment.”
Muhammad is part of that moment. Whether she wins, whether she loses, her presence on Team USA in Rio has shattered expectations, rewritten labels and inspired countless young athletes.
“It’s really simple: All I have to do is stand on the strip, wear my hijab and that’s a part of who I am,” she said. “But obviously, I hope a medal comes along with that.”
This is Ibtihaj Muhammad.
An American Olympian.