Ibtihaj Muhammad played a wide range of sports during her youth, including tennis, softball, volleyball, and track. But because of her Muslim faith, she frequently modified her uniforms to be less revealing. When she learned that her New Jersey high school had a fencing team, it provided a way for her to satisfy her competitive instincts without compromising her desire to dress modestly in accordance with her faith.
"One of the reasons I became a fencer was the attraction to the long pants, jacket, and mask," she says. "For the first time in any sport, I was able to wear the same uniform as my teammates."
Muhammad took to the sport quickly, switching from epée to saber when she was sixteen. "What I found so appealing about saber was how fast-paced it was in comparison to the other weapons," she says. "Unlike epée, saber is a right-of-way weapon, which means that the fencer must take certain actions to score a point. It requires agility, quick footwork, and strategy."
Muhammad had all three to spare, and as team captain, led her high-school squad to two state titles. While she was at Duke, she won the Junior National Championship in the women's saber division at the Junior Olympics. She was a three-time All-American, but says that her game really took off in 2009, when she began to work with fencer and personal coach Akhi Spencer-El, who competed in the 2000 Olympics. In two years, Muhammad's world ranking went from 212 to 11.
"For the first time in my career, I am being trained to fence tactically," says Muhammad. "I view the sport in a different way, similar to a game of chess. There are so many options, but tactically you must know when to make the right move, which sometimes means losing a point to score two."
Now in training for the 2012 Olympic Games, Muhammad could become the first U.S. woman to compete at the Olympics in a hijab. "People's reaction to seeing an African-American Muslim fencer varies," she says. "Sometimes they're apprehensive, but most times they're curious. When I first began competing on the international stage, I'm not sure anyone would have guessed I was competing for the United States. As diverse as our country is, the U.S. fencing team does not adequately represent the various ethnic groups living in the U.S. It is not easy being different from everyone else, both racially and religiously. I am often inundated with questions regarding my religion or my hijab, oftentimes from my own teammates."
As an athlete, Muhammad has travelled all over the world, including a study-abroad experience in Morocco in 2006. She says that being different from the rest of her teammates can be difficult depending on where she is competing, but that she considers it her duty and honor to pave the way for other religious and ethnic minorities.
"Fencing has taught me so much about myself and what I am capable of. I want to be an example for minority and Muslim youth that anything is possible with perseverance. I want them to know that nothing should ever hinder them from achieving their goals—not race, religion, or gender."
Ibtihaj Muhammad '07
Making her point in fencing
November 30, 2011