They say there’s a first for everything. It’s something Olympic athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad knows well.
In sports, the word first is associated with competitive ranking: the winner. But the 32-year-old fencer’s story of firsts is as much about crushing boundaries as it is about crushing opponents. She was the first athlete to wear a hijab when competing for the U.S. in the Olympics. She was also the first Muslim-American woman to win a medal. For challenging convention and remaining true to herself, Muhammad is celebrated as a pioneer in athletics. But when it comes to her greatest achievement, she’s most proud of the dialogue these actions have initiated. “I’m showing people that Muslim women should be part of the conversation when it comes to sports,” Muhammad says.
Muhammad was raised in Maplewood, New Jersey, where, as far as she knew, there was only one other Muslim family in town. She was 13 years old when she put on her first fencing uniform, which changed the way she was able to engage with her peers. “It was the first time I could participate in a sport and not compromise my faith,” she explains. While her peers were always inclusive, being part of a team sport helped Muhammad—an active kid—find a way to connect.
It was only when she traveled to other fencing competitions that she felt different. Beyond being the only fencer in a hijab, she was often the only African-American participant in a sport dominated by white athletes. Those early experiences set off a pattern that has repeated itself throughout Muhammad’s whole life: “I’ve had a lot of moments of being the first,” she says.
Muhammad was later recruited to compete for Duke University; she made the national fencing team in 2010 and then had that history-making turn at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, when she took home the bronze. Muhammad credits this success to her upbringing and persistence when she faced doubt from others. “I wasn’t always accepted by coaching staff or teams; people have a hard time with change. But I made a conscious decision not to care about people’s misconceptions of who I was,” she explains. “I wouldn’t allow what others thought about my religious beliefs or ethnic background to change how I felt about myself. I used my confidence and my belief in my journey to qualify for the Games.”
That spirit and motivation even inspired the first hijab-wearing Barbie. The doll, part of Mattel’s new “Shero” line, is dressed in a fencing uniform, complete with a replication of Muhammad’s saber. Presented to Muhammad for the first time at the 2017 Glamour Women of the Year summit, this Barbie inspires girls to embrace their differences. For the trailblazing Olympian, activating this kind of change is a lifelong responsibility.
After winning her medal, Muhammad now intends to “transcend sports, in a sense.” She’s writing a memoir and a children’s book while she advocates for a more inclusive fashion industry. She also gives back through her involvement with organizations like the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that uses fencing to help young people from New York’s underserved communities reach their academic and personal potential. And, despite her busy schedule, Muhammad is still training.
“Through sport I figured out who I could be as a person,” she says. Athletics have afforded Muhammad opportunities to pursue the American dream beyond the Olympics. “As a Muslim public figure, it’s important to be myself—my most authentic self. That’s being challenged right now, politically and socially, and it’s what makes this country so different and so strong. [All Americans] have different backgrounds and skill sets to make us the strongest nation in the world, and that should be celebrated.”