The 2016 Olympics opens officially tonight in Rio, and U.S. fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, is hoping to bring home the medals, and so is President Obama after he asked her to “bring home the gold.” She will also become the first U.S. athlete to ever compete in hijab.
“I remember moments where there were people who told me I didn’t belong in my sport because I was black, or I didn’t belong because I was Muslim,” she said.
Muhammad was trained by the six-time Olympic fencer Peter Westbrook at his gym in New York, where he had set up a foundation to help inner-city children learn from the sport.
“When I went to the Foundation, I saw not just people who look like me, but I also saw that there were Olympians in the room,” she said.
She will be competing in saber fencing where opponents fight with blunt blades and target from the waist up. She was born in Maplewood, New Jersey, and has been fencing since she was 13, after her mother recommended the sport to her.
Kozaczuk Vs Muhammad 2014 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A hand injury meant she didn’t qualify for London 2012, but she has already won a medal in the International Fencing Federation’s World Cup in Athens, allowing her to qualify for Rio.
Even after the disappointment in 2012, Muhammad said she kept things in perspective. “My faith is such a large part of who I am, and it’s helped keep me grounded.”
Now, Ibtihaj Muhammad teaches at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, and has even taught the First Lady Michelle Obama in a fencing session last April.
“I would tell youth around the world to not allow other people’s misconceptions about your race, your gender, your ethnicity to define them and to dictate their path in life. They can do whatever it is that they set their mind to.”
In 2012 the U.S. Embassy in London was privileged to be able to ask Ibtihaj Muhammad about fencing and why she took it up, You can watch the interview on the Embassy’s YouTube Channel.