It didn’t take much for Team USA fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad to realize her life shifted into a new orbit after the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
In qualifying for Rio, Muhammad went on to become the first American woman to compete at an Olympic Games wearing a hijab, and also medaled at the Games when her saber team took home the bronze medal.
The “new normal” since then has had strangers coming up to her to emotionally share what her Olympic appearance meant to them. It had her walking in a fashion show for Serena Williams, and turning the tennis great from a childhood role model into a friend. And now it has her working with the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.
Pretty much everything has changed for Muhammad, except for what makes her athletically shine. Muhammad will be fencing this weekend at a women’s saber world cup in Brooklyn, New York.
Before she competes, the busy Muhammad took some time to chat with TeamUSA.org and share the five biggest ways her life has changed since Rio.
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1. President Obama appointed her on Jan. 18 to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, joining nine fellow U.S. Olympians.
Says Muhammad: “I think that former President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama get so much of the credit for increasing awareness in the nation about health, being more active. I know that resonates with all of us, because we’re athletes. It’s what we do being part of Team USA. Fitness and health are such a large part of my life. I am at my best when I am active and eating well. Being part of the council will help me create a bigger platform and reach more youth and people on a national scale. I am really excited. I did a lot of work with the State Department over the last two years on sports and fitness for women and girls. I want to expand that message to all genders. It is so inspiring to have four awesome Olympians, four women. That speaks to the strong presence we have on Team USA.”
2. She’s had a slew of “pinch-me” moments.
Says Muhammad: “It’s one of the most amazing things being part of Team USA; you immediately become part of this incredible network of really strong, hard working, insanely decorated people. It’s almost like they’ve all been ‘pinch-me’ moments, all the time. I’ve had so many moments where I was like, ‘Is this really happening?’ I dressed to model for Serena Williams’ fashion show with other Olympians. I went to the Glamour Women of the Year awards, which was not just celebrities, but philanthropists, women with missions in life. And that’s how I want to lead my life, my goal. What can I do to be a component of change? Increase your network. Try to use your platform beyond your reach. Network with people with your story. It’s a privilege, so rewarding. Take Serena. I’m not sure many people know this about her, but she has provided so much inspiration for me, people my age. She has changed the way a lot of young African-American female athletes perceive ourselves in sports. She’s unapologetically black, strong, and a complete bad ass. She did wonders for me as a young girl. And now I consider her a friend.”
3. She’s starting to understand the impact she’s having, from openly sharing her Muslim faith, wearing a hijab during competition and being a strong female athlete.
Says Muhammad: “I remember when I first qualified for the Games, that moment was like almost a year ago at this time. It immediately felt bigger than me. Now, coming home from the Games, seeing and hearing the stories from people — they’re telling me how proud they are that the women on Team USA look like them. That’s a narrative the Muslim community is not used to really seeing or hearing. It’s really touching for myself, as this is normal — I am living my life. I am proud of who I am, with no reservations about my faith, gender and race. I hope I am a symbol of hope and change. It’s been one of the rewarding experiences, to see how my journey has hopefully positively affected perceptions.”
4. She’s still figuring out her comfort level with stardom.
Says Muhammad: “It’s totally different. It was the norm, prior to the Olympics, not to be recognized. Now, like in my own town, it can be like at a Muslim event, I have security. That’s literally out of the box for me. I am not comfortable with it at all. I know I need it, but it’s not like any sense of normal in your life. At the same time, I take it all as a gift. It’s life, a positive contribution. I definitely feel like I am work in progress, especially with large groups.
“I’ve had some really moving interactions. It can happen while waiting for a train, or at practice, or at an event. I’ve had really tearful exchanges with mothers of daughters, telling me what I have done for their child, and I’m not even aware of it. Young girls especially have a really hard time with their bodies and the images we see — we really can’t choose that, and it really formulates opinions of ourselves and our own bodies that’s detrimental to youth development. I’m a person who kind of defies the way perceptions are seen as what’s acceptable and beautiful. I think that helps. In a sense, I am modeling for young girls a new body image, helping them to lead their own journeys.”
5. She hasn’t taken a break … but that will be changing soon.
Says Muhammad: “I’ve had no vacation, but I am going to do it. It is really interesting when you set a lofty goal and achieve it. It’s almost like you have to redefine what success is, your next goal, your next move. It’s a double-edged sword. I’m a hard worker, and that’s how I’ve had success. But how do you maintain that same level of hard work? Initiative? I feel like if I am not working hard as a business owner, athlete, then someone is passing me. But I feel like a break is coming. A friend is getting married in Egypt soon, during the world cup season, and I am going. That’s something I would not normally do. I am going for a weekend to Paris with friends. It’s about me having happiness.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.