This alumna is ready for Olympian combat

Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad '07 heads to the Games, parrying all limitations
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June 2, 2016

When she’s not fencing, she’s so charming; when she’s not fencing, she’s so lovable; when she’s not fencing, she’s so adorable,” Peter Westbrook says of Ibtihaj Muhammad ’07. “When she’s fencing, she’s like a lion. Like a lion. I like to deal with the other side better.”

He laughs as he finishes his thought. Westbrook, a former U.S. sabre fencing champion who won the bronze medal in the 1984 Olympics, has known Muhammad—or “Ibti,” as many refer to her—for half her life. She came to him at his renowned Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York when she was just sixteen, and this summer, at thirty, she’s off to follow in his footsteps, fencing for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Out of context, Westbrook’s comment might sound like tired sexism, the need some have to highlight a woman’s softer side—her more, some would say, redeeming qualities—in light of her aggressive ambition. But his take on the young athlete he has helped raise serves to highlight Muhammad’s defining dynamism, a facet noted by those intimately acquainted with her as well as those on the periphery of her hectic life.

“Ibti is really interesting because when you’re talking to her off the strip, she is just the warmest, most effusive person—really cool,” says Olympian Becca Ward ’12, who fenced at Duke after Muhammad had graduated yet got to know her through camps and competitions. “But she’s also really very fiercely competitive in a way that, when I was young, scared me a little bit.”

Ward, too, laughs. Apparently Muhammad brings this out in people: a mild sense of shock at their own timidity toward her. That she can be affable and ferocious, open and—simultaneously— elusive is what makes the three-time All-American prizefighting fencer what she is. Muhammad demands we hold complexity where it might be far more tempting to simplify.

THE “STRIP,” as Ward put it, is the fencing arena— sabres out. It’s where Muhammad, razor sharp and ready for combat, thrives. Having started out in the sport at thirteen, she has spent the better part of nearly two decades honing her talent through a formidable training regimen but also learning to channel her intensity into her game. She’s described as feisty and fiery, but she still manages to bring a calm, calculated demeanor to the strip. “All the stuff that used to get [in] her way, now she uses that as a springboard for success,” Westbrook says. “She doesn’t let the little minefield detour her.” The stuff is hardship, big and small. Having an official make an unfair call. Walking down the street and hearing a racist slur hurled her way.

During a layover at the Incheon International Airport in Korea, Muhammad explains that learning to fence tactically, versus being all in her head, changed her game overnight. “I always explained fencing as like physical chess, in the sense that you want to outthink your opponent,” she says as she waits for her connecting flight to Japan, where she’ll be competing in the World Cup. “And I felt like I was always trying to use my speed or my strength to beat everyone and not really thinking about the sport from a tactical perspective.” She shifted her strategy in 2009, when she began working with Akhi Spencer-El, who showed her, she says, not only a new side of fencing, but also a new side of her self.

That was three short years after she graduated from Duke, a time in her early twenties when her friends and classmates were going to happy hours after their workdays at corporate offices or to graduate-school classes. Muhammad went deep into her fencing, letting the nurturing of a coach who believed in her expand into parts of herself she had unknowingly allowed to wither.

“I’ve always really believed in myself and my work ethic, but when I changed coaches in 2009, this new coach I started working with, he said that I could be one of the best athletes in the world,” she says. “Initially I thought he was crazy, but it was also the first time anyone told me that I could be great. And it was just kind of groundbreaking for me, because it allowed me to see myself in a different light.”

While Muhammad’s fencing evolved and may have even radically transformed, much remained constant—namely her dedication and her innate abilities. Ward comments on the impressive nature of Muhammad’s desire to go for the Olympic team after college; she admits she herself lacked that drive. “Full-time” fencing, which involves raising money to attend training camps and committing to constant competitions, is an intense life not many are cut out for, Ward says. Muhammad works hard, but some things come with more ease. “She always had the raw talent,” Duke fencing coach Alex Beguinet says. “Everyone who watched her fence could see that.”

Westbrook, whose mentorship complements Spencer-El’s hands-on coaching, speaks glowingly of “the Ibti timing”: “Everybody has their own unique rhythm, but she has unbelievable, uncanny timing, an uncanny rhythm,” he says. “When Europeans fence her, they can’t figure it out.... It’s an unorthodox sense of timing and reflexes. She’s developed it on her own and homed in on that skill tremendously. And they can’t figure it out. People can’t figure it out.”

Muhammad grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, a suburb of fewer than 25,000 people but with an ethnic and racial diversity that sheltered her from the specific brand of vitriol reserved for an individual at the intersection of Muslim, black, and woman. “I was kind of in a bubble, and I was around kids that had known me since I was in kindergarten, so I don’t remember being targeted or anything while growing up,” she says.

Still, athletics was an outlet for her in a world in which some messages can be loud and strident enough that they permeate even the thickest of safety bubbles. Joining the fencing team in high school, after trying swimming, volleyball, and track, was like entering the cocoon of belonging for young Muhammad. Before stumbling upon fencing, the sport that stuck, she always struggled to make uniforms work with the need for her body to be fully covered—frequently that meant adding long sleeves and pants to uniforms that otherwise showed skin, a hassle and an extra expense, depending on the circumstance.

“When my mom discovered fencing for the first time when I was twelve, it was like a light bulb moment,” she says.

These days, Muhammad is perhaps most known as being the first U.S. athlete in hijab to qualify to compete in the Olympics. But on the strip, all that’s visible is her fencing gear, which includes a head-to-toe white suit paired with gloves and hooded masks. Here, she blends right in.

“I think that as a youth growing up and being different from your peers can be a difficult experience, and for me, I feel that finding a sports team that I really connected with, and that being my high-school fencing team, really gave me a sense of belonging.”

That was when she met Westbrook. He described teenage Muhammad as bold, assertive, and with a fighting spirit that stood out. She frequently stood up to him, a six-time Olympian, negotiating her training schedules and the like. He’d say four days a week; to her, two seemed sufficient.

“I knew that feisty nature she had would make her great one day,” he says. “When I saw that, I said, ‘Aha, a lot of nerve, but a lot of potential.’ ”

At Duke, Muhammad, who was the only Muslim woman wearing hijab while she was there, experienced for the first time the pain of marginalization and the impacts of growing Islamophobia. She arrived a year after 9/11 but has difficulty assessing whether her experience might have been better at another time. While Muhammad didn’t see a shift in how she was treated in New Jersey in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, she remembers getting the sense that, for many of her Duke peers, she was their first exposure to a Muslim.

“It was my first time away from home that I saw that my being different made other people uncomfortable,” she recalls. “I was at Duke where there were Confederate flags hanging out of the window on East Campus from someone’s dorm room. I was also there through the Duke lacrosse scandal, where I felt like it really divided the Duke community on the lines of race or socioeconomic status. You could feel it. I still say that Duke was one of the best four years of my life, but it definitely made you aware of other people’s hang-ups that they may have had because you were different.”

The thought of going to the Olympics was a seed planted only four years ago for Muhammad. Even then, she says, it was one that she didn’t give much thought. She preferred baby steps to get to her big dreams. In high school, fencing was her ticket to college (she attended Duke on a full scholarship). In college, she wanted to qualify for the NCAA and become All-American. From there, she wanted to make Nationals and then win an individual medal at a World Cup. Of course, all milestones were long ago crossed off the checklist. The desire to be where she is now was one that blossomed over time.

“I’ve always been very goal-oriented, and it’s just a dream come true for me to set such a lofty goal and see that dream come to fruition.”

Since qualifying, she’s been propelled into the spotlight, held up as a symbol of hope for tolerance, acceptance, and, for some, a broader understanding of what it means to be American. It could be a lot of pressure—President Obama told her to “bring home the gold” during a meeting before his speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore earlier this year—but Muhammad takes her position as nothing but a blessing.

Westbrook says that it’s not rare for young Muslim women to come to the foundation, where Muhammad spends every Saturday teaching kids to fence when she’s not traveling, but the heights she has soared to certainly are. And the reaction from the community shines a light on that fact.

“I did not realize that magnitude of her accomplishments and what that has done for the country, what that has done for Muslim people in the country, what that has done to uplift Muslim people and Muslim women in the world,” he says. “Muslim people call me and congratulate me. They’re so happy for Ibti, but they’re also happy for themselves.”

Muhammad, too, has thoughts on how her religious identity influences the role she plays in public. One might imagine her growing impatient at her faith being the focus of conversation; in reality it’s when she comes to life. Addressing the recent incident at the South by Southwest festival where a volunteer asked that she remove her hijab for her event ID photo, Muhammad was measured but passionate.

“I just want people to know that as a Muslim woman, that’s a daily occurrence; that’s an experience that you have if you go to the airport; that’s an experience that you have if you go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to take a photo,” she says. “I would like people to know that it’s not out of the norm for that to happen to Muslim women in this country.”

Her tweet about the incident was shared more than 3,500 times. With so many looking to her to stand for something, it’s clear that Muhammad cannot afford apathy.

“I remember growing up and being told I don’t belong, or that there were limitations that I felt society was putting on me because I was Muslim or because I was black or because I was a woman,” she says. “And I just hope that, seeing my face and that it represents Team USA, there are kids out there who believe that they can see themselves in this space of athletics and believe there are possibilities for them to be successful.” 

Babu ’05 is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared on BuzzFeed, The Margins, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Feminist Wire, and more. She is working on her first novel.