MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad returned to her hometown of Maplewood on just the second day of her book tour to rehash old times with the community and to discuss the trials she withstood to make Team USA in the 2016 Olympics. On July 25, Muhammad promoted her memoir “Proud” — which also has a special version for younger readers — at Words Bookstore in Maplewood.
Muhammad, who grew up in Maplewood and graduated from Columbia High School, rose to international prominence when she became the first woman to compete for Team USA in the Olympics while wearing a hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf; her popularity then skyrocketed when she won a bronze medal for saber fencing. She now also has a successful clothing line of more modest apparel and Mattel has unveiled a Barbie doll modeled after her — the first Barbie ever to wear a hijab.
“I can’t even tell you how exciting it is to have my second day of my book tour in Maplewood,” Muhammad told the audience at Words. “It was here that I learned about inclusion.”
Like the SOMA community, the audience at Words was a diverse mix of individuals, representing many races, religions and ages. There were so many audience members that, after all the seats had been taken, dozens stood in the back of the room to hear Muhammad.
“It was fantastic to see such a tremendous turnout — well over 200 people — from throughout our community to hear Ibtihaj’s inspiring story,” Words owner Jonah Zimiles told the News-Record.
Various members of the audience said they had come to support Muhammad; to collect advice from the Olympian; to feel inspired; and just to hear her story — one replete with struggles and triumphs.
“Maplewood is considered a fairly diverse community, yet you experienced adversity here,” moderator Zaida Viqueira, a longtime friend of Muhammad, prompted.
“Fencing was the first time that I saw that my faith and skin color had the ability to affect how people treated me,” Muhammad said, adding that she had initially been drawn to the sport because it allowed her to be involved in athletics while dressing modestly.
Muhammad first became interested in fencing after driving by Columbia High School with her mother and seeing the athletes practicing. Her family then contacted coach Frank Mustilli, who runs the New Jersey Fencing Alliance in Maplewood.
“If you’re a veteran of this sport and you’re from this area, you started in Frank’s backyard — it was a little shady,” Muhammad joked as she looked to Mustilli, who was seated in the audience. “Having a coach at a young age who motivates you and encourages you really helped me.”
Mustilli remained Muhammad’s coach on the CHS fencing team, which Muhammad described as a tight-knit family.
“We had kids on the team who did not have an athletic bone in their body, but Frank believed in us,” Muhammad said, discussing how difficult but ultimately rewarding it was to switch from epee to saber. “If it weren’t for Frank forcing me to switch to saber in my junior year, I wouldn’t be here today, because I was not a good epeeist.”
Mustilli certainly made an impact on Muhammad, not just in her fencing career, but on her growth as a person as well. She told the audience that she cannot wait for her former coach to read “Proud.”
But the family-like atmosphere of the CHS team made competing at Duke University difficult for Muhammad, who was the only student on campus who wore a hijab. She described the Duke fencing team as not feeling much like a team at all.
“It wasn’t as diverse or embracing,” she said.
After college, she struggled to find a job. She said that at one point she took “Muhammad” off her resume and was amazed at how many more interviews she was invited to — though the recruiter’s enthusiasm did fade when they saw a black woman in a hijab show up to the interview, she said.
Muhammad ultimately returned to Columbia, this time as a fencing coach.
“During that time, while you were training to get on the Olympic team, you coached at CHS for about six years,” Viqueira, whose daughters were coached by Muhammad, said. “I wanted to tell everyone what tremendous work ethic you had.”
Viqueira recalled Muhammad competing at various elite fencing championships and then returning to coach the CHS team.
“You coached, you traveled and you trained,” Viqueira said.
Muhammad said that, while she does not think coaching is for her, she loved her time at CHS because she grew close to the students and respected them as athletes and individuals.
“There are so many layers of this sport that people aren’t aware of, layers of discrimination,” Muhammad said, recalling coaching alongside Daryl White, another black fencer. “They were a great group of kids. I felt bad for the kids because I wondered if the hurdles thrown at the team would have happened if I had been white.”
Muhammad said she was impressed with how her CHS students persevered. She also persevered in the face of discrimination.
“It took resilience and self-awareness to know I couldn’t let those things affect how I felt about myself,” Muhammad said.
As for her path to the Olympics, it was filled with difficulties. Muhammad said she felt alienation from the coaching staff, which she attributes to being the sole U.S. Olympian to wear a hijab and being black. She also had food poisoning while competing to make Team USA.
Muhammad shared with the audience that she didn’t even know she had made the Olympic team until she received a Google alert on her phone.
“USA Fencing is so weird; I had no idea I made the Olympic team,” she said. “I got a Google alert that I qualified, so I found out with all of you.”
Upon Viqueira asking when Muhammad first realized she was a role model, Muhammad responded, “Am I?”
“So much of my journey has always felt bigger than me,” Muhammad said. “I was always told I didn’t belong as a kid. I always felt like a square trying to fit into round spaces.”
Viqueira brought up that Muhammad competed in the Olympics and was thrown into the spotlight at a time of political upheaval in this country. Muhammad responded that she felt the nation needed to see a Muslim woman of color representing the country, especially at that time.
“On a larger scale, we have someone in office who demonizes black and brown bodies in a way we haven’t seen in a long time,” Muhammad said. “I had the opportunity to change the narrative. I was excited to have it be a positive story about Muslims. I’m so tired of seeing these negative stories play out on television.”
For her next project, Muhammad is working to bring other exceptional female athletes into the limelight to get the respect they deserve.
“There are so many women who are best in their profession and we would all know their names if they were men,” she said.
It is precisely Muhammad’s message of acceptance and belonging that led Zimiles to bring her to Words. According to Zimiles, Muhammad fit in well with Words’ two core missions: to serve as a literary and intellectual hub for Maplewood and South Orange, and to support families who have a member with autism.
“Ibtihaj’s message is consistent with ours as we are both looking to support appreciation of individuals who differ from the majority and celebrate and value this diversity,” Zimiles told the News-Record. “Although Ibtihaj does not herself have a disability, her story of overcoming adversity and defying societal stereotypes can encourage our autism families to know that, with the support of our community, their loved ones can accomplish dreams far exceeding expectations.”
Prior to signing copies of her book for approximately an hour, Muhammad left audience members with this final advice: “You have to be your own biggest cheerleader. Truly believe in the power of knowing you have everything inside that you need to be great.”
Photos by Yael Katzwer and Courtesy of Asiya Muhammad