The excitement was palpable at The Woodland in Maplewood on Wednesday, as a large and enthusiastic crowd came to see world-class fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who has received renown as the first Muslim woman to represent the United States at the Olympics this summer.
It was the capstone event of the 2016 Maplewood Ideas Festival. Muhammad was introduced by Maplewood Library Director Sarah Lester and Mayor Vic DeLuca, who presented a proclamation declaring April 6, 2016 as “Ibtihaj Muhammad Day” in Maplewood. Assemblywoman Mila Jasey presented Muhammad with a resolution from the State Senate and Assembly.
Superintendent of SOMSD schools Dr. John Ramos interviewed Muhammad (CHS ’03), who was unfailingly gracious, humble and inspirational.
Ramos said she was “not just a hometown hero [but] a worldwide trailblazer.”
As she took in the overwhelming response from her community, Muhammad was briefly overcome with emotion and took a few moments to compose herself.
Looking radiant and chic in a sleek white top and sparkly gold heels, Muhammad talked about “how much Maplewood means to me and how pivotal it was to my success as an athlete,” and praised the “diversity I was exposed to as a kid.”
Muhammad said her faith as a Muslim “always comes first” and that fencing enabled her to excel in a sport where she could fully participate while remaining true to the tenets of her religion, which include dressing modestly.
Currently ranked second in the US, she fenced as a student at Columbia High School, then won a scholarship to Duke University where she was a 3-time All American and Junior Olympic Champion.
Muhammad’s celebrity has taken her beyond sports. She works with the U.S. Department of State’s Council to Empower Women and Girls Through Sports and with the Peter Westbrook Foundation, which mentors inner-city kids through the sport of fencing.
For girls and women it makes a “world of difference to be involved in sports,” she said.
These days she is following a grueling training regimen, working out and fencing six days a week from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. to prepare for Rio this summer. In her “spare time” she runs a clothing company that makes affordable modest clothing.
Asked for her advice to young people, Muhammad said as a child she felt “different” as both an African-American and a Muslim wearing the hijab. She noted that children spend a great deal of time trying to fit in and make the right impression on their friends. The lesson she learned: “It’s not important at all to impress our friends.”
One audience member asked about the now-infamous incident where she was asked to remove her “hat” (aka hijab) for a photo ID at the SXSW festival in Texas. Complaining to a supervisor, she was told, “Well, you are in Texas.”
“I don’t think it matters whether I’m in Texas or Timbuktu,” she said.
Regarding the CHS fencing team, which she coached for four years after graduating, Muhammad said, “I absolutely love the [team] and they will always hold a special place in my heart.”
Her role model? Her mom, who “told me I could do and be whatever I wanted.”
What Ellen Degeneres is like in real life? “She’s just as funny in person” as on TV.
Getting a shout out from the President of the United States in a speech? “I was shocked that he mentioned me.”
In closing, Muhammad summed up her philosophy in life as well as in fencing: “Never allow what people see as an obstacle — gender, race, religion –to hinder you from reaching your goals.”