Were you hoping Donald Trump was watching?
“Who?” Ibtihaj Muhammad, the American fencer who had just lost to Cecilia Berder, of France, in the round of 16 at the women’s individual saber event in Rio, coyly replied with a smile. Her dream of winning an individual medal at her first Olympics had just ended, but Muhammad was unwilling to cede her moment.
The first American athlete to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, Muhammad has a platform far more prominent than that of most fencers, or even most Olympians. The other members of Team USA nearly voted her to carry the opening ceremonies flag — she trailed only Michael Phelps. And while Muhammad has already saidplenty about the Republican presidential nominee, she chose to focus on the positive after losing in Rio.
The loss left Muhammad frustrated and flustered: she contested a few calls with the ref, and exited the fencing area in tears before returning to meet the media. “In a sport like fencing, you are your biggest opponent,” Muhammad says. “If you can control yourself and your nerves and emotions, and execute actions the way you want to execute them, you’ll always be successful. And I failed to do that today.”
What Muhammad hasn’t failed to do, however, is embrace role as an ambassador for Muslim-American women. “I want to break cultural barriers,” she says. “I feel like this moment, representing my country and the Muslim community, it’s bigger than myself.”
At the opening ceremonies, Muhammad took pictures with women from Saudi Arabia. “That was a beautiful experience to see women in hijab from all around the world be involved in sport and be present at this level of sport,” she says, calling that night in the stadium in Rio one of the best moments of her life. “Anyone who has paid attention to the news would know the importance of having a Muslim woman on Team USA,” says Muhammad. “It’s challenging those misconceptions that people have about who the Muslim woman is.”