Born: December 4, 1985
Ibtihaj Muhammad was born December 4, 1985 in Maplewood. “Ibti” was one of five children born to Eugene and Denise Muhammad, who converted to Islam and insisted their kids embrace traditional Muslim attire. For Ibti, this meant wearing long sleeves and full-length pants when she competed in softball, tennis, track volleyball and other sports. In some cases this proved problematic, in some cases not. Ibti discovered fencing after her mother saw a fencing team practicing and thought it would be an ideal sport for her 12-year-old daughter, who was quick, strong and smart. And the uniform was perfect.
There was just one problem: at the beginner level, there is a lot of physical contact between student and teacher, and the hands-on positioning instructionof her first coach made Ibti uncomfortable. Fortunately, she came back to the sport after enrolling at Columbia High School in 1999. Coach Frank Mustilli suggested she change from foil to epee, and then ultimately to sabre, which is a much faster and aggressive form of fencing. It suited Ibti’s skill and personality. In addition to competing for the Cougars, she also joined Peter Westbrook’s fencing program in New York her senior year. There she began a productive partnership with coach Akhi Spencer-El, who had competed in the sabre at the 2000 Olympics.
Ibti captained the Cougars as a junior and senior and led the team to a pair of state titles. A superb student-athlete, she received an academic scholarship from Duke University. She earned 2004 All-America status as a freshman and repeated as a sophomore in 2005. That year she went 34–8 and was crowned Junior Olympic National Champion. Ibti was a three-time All-American and quickly cracked the world Top 100 after graduating in 2007.
Ibti continued to climb up the national and world rankings in the years that followed. She was added to the U.S. national team in 2010 and, although she did not make the 2012 Olympic team, in 2014 she was a member of the championship sabre squad at the 2014 World Fencing Championships in Russia. That same year, she launched her own clothing company.
In 2016, Ibti won gold at the Pan American games after 2012 Olympic champion and teammate Mariel Zagunis bowed out due to injury. She hoped to ride that momentum to a medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. She was the focus of considerable media attention heading into the Summer Games, not in small part because she would become the first American to wear a hijab while competing for the U.S. Ibti was defeated in the second round, but earned a bronze medal in the team sabre, along with Zagunis, Monica Aksamit and Dagmara Wozniak. The Americans lost to Russia in the semifinals and then beat Italy to finish third.