The headline read, "the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Olympic Games wearing hijab."
Fencing is both an individual and team sport. Fencers duel in a one-on-one bout, but are members of a team. Very much like boxing and numerous martial arts, fencing has its origins in combat and/or preparation for combat. There are three categories, with different weapons and rules for each of them: foil, épée and saber.
Until recently fencing was very much an elitist sport, with predominantly white athletes who were members of private clubs. It was and still is a costly sport because of expenses for equipment and lessons, and competition fencing has entrance fees and travel costs. In addition It requires years of disciplined practice, preferably begun at a very early age.
It was the perfect sport for Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was waging her own battles, as the only African American Muslim who wore the hijab where she lived, attended school and participated in sports in New Jersey. She came from a working class, loving family that was supportive but had high expectations for all the children. Even though she began fencing at a late age, thirteen years old, Ibtihaj made great strides.
There were times when she doubted she was capable of being successful, but a knowing athletic coach, who recognized her potential, was positive that she could succeed in the most free-wheeling, combative form of fencing: saber. By excelling in saber Ibtihaj strengthened a belief in herself, and validated the potential that Coach Mustilli had seen in the young woman. However the road ahead would be paved with rough spots that she never could have imagined.
Through lots of hard work she made Team USA, but there were other battles to fight. She was often excluded from group dinners and did not feel part of the general team camaraderie, and writes openly and evenly about her experiences in order to bring consciousness to a sport that she loves. Despite those challenges she went on to win a bronze medal in the Team Sabre at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Ibtihaj’s life as a fencer and as a young woman exemplify initiative, individualism and hard work, which are some of the core values that embody the American Dream. By telling her story, she has been candid about her doubts, struggles and achievements, and has brought attention to a sport that is growing in popularity. The sport itself has much to offer people of different ages and backgrounds, even if they are not in competition for the Olympics. In her prologue she hopes that by reading her memoir, “... anyone who has had an opportunity taken from them because of their race, religion, or gender can find solace in these pages. I hope people feel empowered by my fight and know that they have every right to demand a place at the table of whatever life is offering.”