The moment that Ibtihaj Muhammad qualified to represent the U.S. in fencing at the 2016 Summer Olympics, her thoughts turned to something beyond sport.
With the country embroiled in a contentious presidential campaign and then-candidate Donald Trump calling for a ban on Muslim immigration, Muhammad was about to become the first Muslim American athlete to wear a hijab at the Games.
“I was going to have to use my platform as an agent of change,” she recalls. “I knew that right away.”
The New Jersey native remained composed as reporters and camera crews shadowed much of her pre-Olympic training. She spoke about anti-Muslim attacks and the discrimination she faced growing up.
Each step of the way, Muhammad vowed to set an example: “I’m hoping to change the image that people may have of Muslim women. We come in all different shapes, colors and sizes and we come from different backgrounds and we’re productive members of society.”
President Obama commended her, Time magazine listed her among its 100 most-influential people and Mattel issued a Barbie doll in her likeness.
At the 2016 Summer Games, the saber fencer advanced to the round of 16 before losing in individual competition, then helped the U.S. to a bronze medal in the team event.
“I’ll never forget this moment ever,” she says.
Now stepping away from competition, the 34-year-old Muhammad has focused on the Louella clothing line she runs with her family, producing a new take on modest women’s fashion. She has written an autobiography and a bestselling children’s book.
“There’s a lot of bigotry that exists, there’s a lot of hatred that exists,” she says. “I think it’s an uphill battle. I don’t know if things have changed for the better or the worse, but I know that it is a fight that we all need to find ourselves a part of.”