BOSTON — From mask to socks, the body must be almost completely covered in fencing. But when Ibtihaj “Ibti” Muhammad competes for the United States in the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this year, she will be wearing an additional item of clothing.
An observant Muslim, Muhammad wears a hijab under her uniform and mask.
Even prior to the Olympic trials, Muhammad was the first Muslim woman in a hijab to represent the US in fencing. And last month she qualified for Rio, where she’ll compete on individual and team events in women’s saber.
“I asked God for a blessing and He sent me a miracle,” Muhammad, 30, of New Jersey, wrote on her Facebook page on February 11, just over a week after she qualified for Team USA with a bronze-medal finish at a World Cup event in Athens.
“When you remove doubt, you conquer your fears. And when you have faith in Allah, anything is possible,” she wrote.
BRONZE IN ATHENS! Blessed to have captured the bronze medal at one of the final Olympic qualifiers, the 2016 Acropolis…
She took up fencing when she was 13 years old and saw her high school fencing team practicing.
“As a Muslim female, the sport was uniquely accommodating,” Muhammad says on her USA Fencing webpage. “My religion requires that my body be fully covered and fencing did just that.”
‘When you remove doubt, you conquer your fears. And when you have faith in Allah, anything is possible’
Muhammad is a 2007 graduate of Duke University, where she received dual bachelor degrees in African and African-American studies. In 2006, she also studied in Morocco, at the School for International Training in Rabat, where her coursework included Moroccan culture and intensive Arabic. But fencing was always on the horizon.
“I saw there was a lack of minorities in the sport,” said Muhammad, who is both Muslim and African-American. “I recognized that I had a skill set, so I started to pursue fencing full-time. I felt that it was something the [Team USA] squad needed.”
“It’s a wonderful thing she’s doing,” said her coach, Akhnaten Spencer-El. “She’s staying true to her religion. She’s an inspiration to all Muslim women, Muslim people. She’s an inspiration to me.”
Muhammad and Spencer-El have been working together since 2010 when she became one of his first students.
‘She’s an inspiration to all Muslim women’
Muhammad mathematically qualified for Team USA with her third-place finish in Athens.
She faced off against Olga Kharlan of Ukraine, a top-ranked female, in the bronze-medal round and the bout was “hotly contested,” said Spencer-El. “They exchanged points from the beginning. Towards the end of the bout, Ibti got ahead and won 15-12. The atmosphere was very tense because all the competitors, over 150, all came to qualify” for the Olympics.
It was actually a fellow American who thwarted Muhammad’s chances for a gold medal: Mariel Zagunis of Portland, Oregon. Zagunis defeated Muhammad to reach the championship, which Zagunis won.
Muhammad competes through the New York-based Peter Westbrook Foundation, run by Peter Westbrook, a former US fencing champion and Olympic medalist who won bronze in 1984.
“Ibti is amazing,” Westbrook said. “I am expecting great things at Rio, just as she always does.”
Muhammad also was one of the Americans who competed in the team category in Athens. While the squad finished fourth, its members still assured themselves a team spot in Rio.
But Muhammad’s individual Olympic journey nearly didn’t happen. She just missed Olympic qualification in 2012 when she finished in the bottom five.
‘Together, we were able to create an Olympian’
“She decided to give it another four years,” Spencer-El said. “It’s unusual. Usually, people who don’t make the team go along with their lives. She saw she was not done with the sport. She had something to prove. She put four more years into her training. That motivated me to do everything I could.”
One sign of improvement was the gold medal Muhammad won in 2014, at the US World Team Championships.
“Together, we were able to create an Olympian,” Spencer-El said.
Muhammad trains daily, finishing her regimen by working with her coach at the Peter Westbrook Foundation in midtown Manhattan.
“We work on improving her game, with some competitive bouts with others training at the same time,” Spencer-El said. A former Olympian himself, having competed in Sydney in 2000, he likes what he sees from his student.
“She’s a fighter,” Spencer-El said. “She knows what she wants and goes after it. She’s a great athlete. She gets better.”
And she stays true to her faith, even when it’s difficult.
“I think it’s very special,” Spencer-El said. “It takes a very special person. I know a lot of people, with everything going on in the world, all the negative press Muslim people are getting, a lot of people in the US would take the hijab off.” However, he said, “She keeps it on and competes with it. It’s a very powerful thing for a person to do.”
He said Muhammad wears different hijabs of different colors, but mostly black.
“From what I know, there has been no pushback,” he said. He said, “Everybody has their views about certain things. I’m sure even on the national team, everybody has views, views on religion.”
Muhammad’s faith has tested her in other ways, including during the Ramadan fast, which occured during one of the most important training camps at the Westbrook Foundation.
“We plan around it,” Spencer-El said. “I never step in the way of her religion… I never push. I work around her schedule, her fasting, in all we do.”
‘I never step in the way of her religion’
“I am so proud of the development and growth of Ibtihaj Muhammad,” Westbrook said. “Her achievements on the fencing strip are only surpassed by her ongoing effort to break barriers in her sport.” Muhammad’s sister Faizah, who is two years younger, also competes through the Westbrook Foundation.
This summer, when Ibti Muhammad competes in Rio, she will make history for Muslims, and for the US.
“Whatever happens, whether she medals or not, she’s already done great things. She’s already overcome so many difficult obstacles. A medal would be the icing on the cake,” Spencer-El said.
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