Friday, December 15, 2017
Sports

CONFIDENT TO BE THEMSELVES

A trip to the Olympics, a meeting with the president and a potential gold medal all began at a stop sign in Maplewood, N.J.

Ibtihaj Muhammad played a lot of sports growing up, including softball, tennis, track and volleyball. But because her Muslim faith mandated that her arms and legs be covered, her mother, Denise, regularly adjusted uniforms, adding stretch pants for track and sweatpants for volleyball.

"My parents were on a mission to find a sport without alteration," Muhammad said.

When she was 13, and at that stop sign, her mother noticed through big windows a group of fencers working out in the cafeteria at Columbia High. Denise had seen enough.

"They're totally covered," she said. "You should try that."

Seventeen years later, Ibtihaj Muhammad is not only an accomplished fencer but also an Olympian, having clinched qualification for the Games at a meet in Athens this month. Last week, she met President Barack Obama.

"My parents didn't give us a choice about playing sports, just which sport to play," said Muhammad, the middle of five children.

Her mother "saw sports as a way of keeping an eye on us from 3 to 5," she said.

Muhammad ended up attending Columbia High, and fought with the épée, one of the three swords used in Olympic competition. When the team graduated its saber stars, her coach encouraged her to switch, but she was reluctant. It turned out she was much better at saber.

The swords differ in the blade and the guard where they are gripped. Sabers score with the edges of the blade rather than the tip, and the sword tends to be moved in more of a slashing motion. Saber competition looks closer to the fencing one would see in an old movie.

"It's the closest representation of who I am," Muhammad said. "I'm very aggressive, that's who I am."

Saber matches often last only five minutes rather than the 15 you might see in épée. "The amount of time you have to process what's going on is much shorter," Muhammad said.

When she fought in épée, she said, "I had trouble staying awake."

Muhammad went on to fence at Duke, where she majored in international relations and African studies and had a minor in Arabic.

She is believed to be the first American Olympian in any sport to compete while wearing a hijab, the head scarf that covers her hair. Wearing it beneath her fencing uniform "is not something I've ever really thought about," she said.

"I get asked about it a lot," Muhammad added. "People ask Muslim women about it — not just athletes — all the time. Like, aren't you hot? On a hot day, you'd still wear a shirt and pants. I would not leave the house without it."

Muhammad will fence in Rio de Janeiro in the individual and team saber events. (The team will be formally announced in April.)

The fencing team events rotate in and out of the Olympics; there was no team event for women's saber in 2012, a disappointment to the Americans, who had won the bronze medal in it at the world championships in 2011 with Muhammad on the team. Olympic rules permitted a maximum of two Americans in the individual event, leaving Muhammad out.

The Americans have continued to shine in women's saber in the years since and have now won five consecutive team medals at the world championships, including a gold in 2014. Muhammad was a part of all five teams, giving her a great chance at an Olympic medal in Rio.

The team is led by Mariel Zagunis, the most accomplished fencer in American history, winner of individual Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008 and still one of the best in the world. Russia and Ukraine are the main opposition.

Muhammad's accomplishments led her to be invited when Obama made his first visit as president to an American mosque last week in Baltimore. Muhammad was among the prominent American Muslims invited to a round-table discussion with the president before his speech.

The subject was the "varying concerns that people have within the Muslim community, like Islamophobia, mass incarceration, anti-Muslim rhetoric," Muhammad said. "I talked about my experiences as a minority member of Team USA."

Muhammad is glad her mother noticed the fencers in the cafeteria that day.

"On a Saturday, you'll see 200 kids here learning to fence," she said at the Fencers Club in Midtown Manhattan. "Sports gives girls a sense of confidence that's very hard to find in this society."

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