RIO DE JANEIRO − Ibtihaj Muhammad was speaking with about a dozen reporters Thursday morning in the Main Press Center, answering every question with candor, intelligence and wit, when someone in the back asked a question that ended with the words, “Donald Trump.”
“Who?” Muhammad replied.
Same reporter, same question.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?” she said.
“Trump!” came an echo of voices. “Donald Trump.”
“Who?” Muhammad said again, and now she was laughing. “I’m not, I can’t ...”
We got the point. She was not going to acknowledge the Republican nominee for president, or be drawn into an elaborate political debate about the man. As Muhammad said, being here is statement enough.
Muhammad is a member of the U.S. women’s fencing team, which is favored to medal in the sabre competition on Aug. 13. She’s also a Muslim. Next week, she will become the first American Olympian to compete in a hijab.
The hijab is a head scarf worn by Muslim women as a sign of modesty. But modesty should not be confused with a lack of confidence, competitiveness and charisma, qualities that Muhammad has in abundance.
“I’m hoping that just my presence on Team USA changes the misconceptions people have about the Muslim community,” she said. “A lot of people have this one idea of who Muslims are, or what a Muslim woman even looks like.
“I think who I am challenges and breaks all those stereotypes and misconceptions. This is who I am − being an American, being African-American, being Muslim, being a woman − these are all things I can’t change and that I wouldn’t change for anything.”
Growing up in the suburban town of Maplewood, N.J., Muhammad chose fencing largely because it was easier to follow Muslim custom and be accepted. A fencer’s gear covered her arms and legs. The hijab was hidden beneath the mask.
“I’m involved in the sport of fencing because it allowed me to be who I am,” she said. “I wanted to participate in a sport where I could adhere to the tenets of my faith. But also, people didn’t look at me as being a minority or a woman. It was simply for your skill set, because once we put on our uniform, you can’t see who’s behind the mask.”
She also discovered that she was very good at it. Muhammad earned a scholarship to Duke, where she was a three-time All-American. By international standards, she was still raw and didn’t make her first U.S. national team until 2010, at the relatively advanced age of 24.
Muhammad narrowly missed making the 2012 Olympic team, but hit her stride and has now won five world team medals. She is now the eighth-ranked sabre fencer in the world. This past January, she came in third in the World Cup in Athens, earning her a spot on the Olympic team.
Now 30, she is the second-oldest member of the U.S. women’s squad after Mariel Zagunis, who is competing in her fourth Olympics. Ibtihaj never loses sight of what it means to be Muslin in America, especially during such a divisive time. Last year, she was asked to remove her hijab for a registration photo, then given the badge of someone else named Muhammad.
She worries about being profiled when she travels the world by air. As the rhetoric about Muslims and terrorism has intensified in turbulent political times, she fears for her safety.
“All the time,” she said. “I had someone follow me home from practice and try to report me to the police, and that was at 20th Street and Seventh in New York City. So 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 a hijab.
“And I want people to know that as hard as it’s been on me, they don’t come close to some of the things we’ve seen, like 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 this is our moment.”
It’s certainly her moment. Muhammad was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people earlier this year. She met the Obamas and taught Michelle how to fence in Times Square. She appeared on TV with Ellen DeGeneres.
Muhammad’s fellow U.S. Olympians appreciate her, too. Word is, she came very close to being picked to carry the flag at Friday’s Opening Ceremonies. Michael Phelps, who has won more the most medals (22) of any athlete in Olympic history, beat her out for the honor.
It would have been a profound political statement by the American athletes − reminiscent of their choice of Lopez Lopong, one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, in Beijing eight years ago. She also would have been the second straight women’s fencer chosen. Zagunis was the flag bearer in London.
“Michael Phelps is a wonderful choice to be flag bearer,” Muhammad said. “Honestly, it was an honor to even be in the conversation among so many phenomenal athletes. To have my name in the mix with people like Serena (Williams) or Michael Phelps is very telling of our team and who we are.”
Muhammad said one reason she wanted to make the national team was to add diversity. It was a veritable Rainbow Coalition on the interview platform Thursday: Muhammad in her hijab; Polish-born Dagmara Wozniak in her purple-dyed hair; Daryl Homer, an African-American from the Bronx.
“I think the Olympics is one of those small windows of opportunity where fencing gets its time to shine,” said Zagunis, a two-time gold medalist.
Before the window closes, Muhammad feels a duty to help change people’s attitudes about Muslims, and to be an inspiration for young girls to reach past the perceived limitations of others. She has heard from many females, Muslim or otherwise, who became aware of her recently.
“That’s the beauty and the curse of social media, you hear from all your supporters and also your haters,” she said. “But I’ve received support and love from young girls from every corner of the world.”
Muhammad said she never imagined she would receive so much attention when she qualified for the Olympics. But she sees it as a blessing, a chance to elevate the conversation about the Muslims in America.
“You have to use your moment to help the people around you,” she said. “There are so many people whose voices aren’t heard. I want to use my platform to tell the story of the Muslim community. It’s a slippery slope when you use hateful rhetoric toward a group of people and encourage violence. I’m hoping the rhetoric changes, and I hope it changes fast.
“I want to shatter stereotypes. It’s really simple. All I have to do it stand on the strip and wear my hijab and that’s a part of who I am. I’m hoping that a medal comes with it.”