RIO DE JANEIRO – Like all other Team USA fencers, Ibtihaj Muhammad has the Stars and Stripes superimposed over the face of her mask.
Yet unlike any other athlete who has competed for the red, white and blue, when Muhammad finished her women’s saber bout at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and pulled off her mask, she was wearing a hijab. The headscarf, in this case black, is a traditional covering of the hair and neck worn by some Muslim women.
In qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, Muhammad knew her presence represented more than usual for a first-time Olympian. And though she was frustrated by her 15-12 loss to Cecilia Berder of France in the Table of 16 on Monday, Muhammad could put the day in perspective.
“I realize that this moment is bigger than me,” she said. “Anyone who has paid attention to the news at all would realize the importance of having a Muslim woman on Team USA. It’s not just any team, it’s the United States of America. It’s just been a really remarkable experience for me.”
Muhammad, who came in ranked No. 8 and had a bye into the Table of 32, defeated Olena Kravatska of Ukraine 15-13 to become the first U.S. athlete to win a match at the Games while wearing a hijab.
From her platform on the fencing strip at the Carioca 3 Arena in the Barra Olympic Park, Muhammad seized the opportunity of “challenging those misconceptions that people have about who the Muslim woman is – That someone is forcing me to wear a hijab, I’m oppressed, that I don’t have a voice. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m very vocal, very verbal and very comfortable expressing myself. I’ve always been like that. I remember being told that I shouldn’t fence as a kid because I was black. I was like why? I want to fence and this is what I’m going to do.”
She definitely spoke up in her match with Berder, arguing with the referee, throwing down her mask and receiving a yellow card.
Muhammad was ahead 6-2 when the Frenchwoman rallied for an 11-7 lead. Muhammad still trailed 14-10 when she scored two points in a row, but Berder closed out the match. On the final point, Berder forced Muhammad to the end of the strip, where she fell into a split and then lay flat on her back on the mat.
Her teammates knew the feeling. No. 3 Mariel Zagunis, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, defeated Eileen Grench of Panama 15-4 in the Table of 32, but was eliminated in the Table of 16, losing to Ekaterina Dyachenko of Russia 15-12.
Dagmara Wozniak lost in the Table of 32 to Vassiliki Vougiouka of Greece 15-8.
Download the Team USA app today for breaking news, 2016 U.S. Olympic Team bios, videos and more.
They will all compete again on Saturday in the team event, facing Poland in the first round.
“I got to chalk it up to a bad day,” said Zagunis, who placed fourth in London four years ago.
“I just kept making a lot of mistakes, so I was not sticking to my game plan,” she said. “I know what she’s really strong in and I kind of fell into those traps early on and wasn’t able to recover.”
Zagunis said the early losses will help get them fired up for the team final.
“It’s just more motivation, more fuel to the fire to make sure that we’re geared up for team,” she said.
The three fencers have been teammates for six years.
“I believe in us and I want us to win a medal,” Muhammad said. “More than anything, I want us to do it for our country.”
For the 30-year-old from Maplewood, New Jersey, walking in the Opening Ceremony was the culmination of four years of “crying and hard work and tears and injuries.”
“All those emotions,” she said. “It’s almost overwhelming. Ohmygod. Finally, I did it. I did the unthinkable.”
She took photos with female athletes from Saudi Arabia.
“That was a beautiful experience to see other women in hijab from around the world also be involved in sport and present at this level of sport,” Muhammad said.
“One of the beautiful things about sport is its unique ability to bring people from different cultures together under this umbrella of one purpose and that’s sport.”
After her loss Monday, she met with her sister, Faizah, who is also a fencer, to talk through the matches and, she said, “and also let go some of the anger that you feel and frustration,”
After about an hour, Muhammad returned to speak to members of the media who had clamored to talk to her.
“At our normal fencing competitions, we don’t have to deal with this many people or this many press,” she said. “We actually don’t have press.”
But her story had resonated across the United States in the run-up to the Games.
“I have so many messages across my social media platforms,” Muhammad said. “It almost seems to be this trending thing, where our girls are being told that there’s things that they can’t do or shouldn’t do. And it’s not necessarily specific to Muslim girls. I would say there are tons of girls out there who find inspiration in my story regardless of their faith and are becoming more involved in sport.
“I always hope that if anyone learns anything from my journey, it’s that sport honestly has changed my life.”