RIO DE JANEIRO – For Ibtihaj Muhammad, this was the long-awaited chapter in a lengthy narrative that had put her in a position of epic significance. It ended with her in an unremarkable position of discomfit, lying on a fencing strip at Carioca Arena 3 in the Olympic Park yet still standing for so much more.
It was just past noon on the third full day of the 2016 Olympics. A little more than an hour earlier, Muhammad had become the first woman in hijab to compete for the United States in an Olympics. That historic moment had been subsumed in her mind by the need to focus on her first match, in the round of 32, which she won 15-13.
Now it was match point in the round of 16, and Muhammad had lost her footing. She remained on her backside for the minute of official review before the referee awarded what would be the final point of a 15-12 score to her opponent, Cecilia Berder of France.
Down. And quickly out of the tournament for the Olympic saber title, an outcome not unexpected among fencing cognoscenti but unwanted for those who hoped for more exposure of the symbol Muhammad had become.
“I wouldn’t say I felt down and out,” Muhammad said. “At the end of the day, I realized that this moment of me in sport and representing my country and the Muslim community is bigger than myself.”
As an athlete, she would of course be disappointed in her performance, one that meant she needed an hour to let go of anger and frustration before talking to the media. Muhammad had received a yellow card warning after throwing down her helmet in disgust over a scoring call by with the referee, a reaction in character with her outspokenness about more important issues.
“In a sport like fencing, you’re your own biggest opponent,” she said. “If you can control yourself and execute the actions you want in a way you want, you’ll be successful. I failed to do that today.”
Yet the 30-year-old Duke graduate understood that her very presence in Rio could forever be viewed as a triumph over the antipathy, some of it virulent, directed toward Muslims in the United States. That is why Muhammad never missed a chance to press for the end of misconceptions about Muslims, especially Muslim women, in the six months since she had qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team.
Download the Team USA app today for breaking news, 2016 U.S. Olympic Team bios, videos and more.
If that took energy and focus away from fencing, so be it.
“I don’t feel that any part of this journey of mine has been a burden,” she said. “I feel like it’s a blessing to be able to represent so many people who don’t have voices.
“It has been a really remarkable experience for me. I just wish I could have performed better.”
No matter that she was off her feet at the end of the match, Muhammad had stood tall and spoken out for the principles on which her native land was founded, principles too easily forgotten in times of tension.
“In light of what’s going on in our country, the political fuss we hear about, it all circles back to my presence on Team USA challenging the misconceptions of who the Muslim woman is,” she said.
She hears that she is forced to wear hijab, that she is oppressed, that she doesn’t have a voice. She has made abundantly clear that all those ideas are incorrect in her case – and in those of many other Muslim women.
“Do you think you have changed any minds?” she was asked.
“Don’t know,” she said. “Don’t know.”
She had been frightened by calls to ban Muslims from entering the United States, by people threatening to report her to the police because she wore hijab on the streets of New York in the wake of terrorist attacks by Islamic-affiliated groups.
“One of the beautiful things about sport is its unique ability to bring different cultures together,” she said. “If anything, we can all unite under this notion of winning.”
She will have one more shot at a medal in Saturday’s team event. Although the U.S. has won team medals in five straight world championships, the individual performances Monday do not offer promising odds.
Mariel Zagunis, the 2004-2008 Olympic champion and 2012 fourth-place finisher, also lost in the round of 16. The third U.S. fencer, Dagmara Wozniak, lost her opening match.
Muhammad had pulled out to a 6-2 lead in her match with Berder. She hoped to go into the break ahead 8-2 but instead found herself behind 8-7.
“Those were the most frustrating moments throughout the match,” she said.
The moment she will remember most, the one when she realized what this all meant, came while walking hand-in-hand with teammates at Friday’s Opening Ceremony.
“All the emotions, it’s almost overwhelming,” Muhammad said. “You’re like, `Ohmigod, I did it, I did the unthinkable.’”
She walked just to the left of flag bearer Michael Phelps in the front row of the large U.S. delegation. Her white head scarf stood out against a dark blue team jacket, the hijab fairly glowing under the lights.
Philip Hersh, who is covering his 18th Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.