Ibtihaj Muhammad is an accomplished entrepreneur, New York Times Bestselling Author, Speaker, and Olympic Fencer, bringing home bronze for Team USA in the 2016 Summer Olympics. She broke barriers in many ways for her sport as the first Muslim-American woman to win an Olympic medal and the first woman of color on the United States Women’s Sabre Team.
Ibtihaj began learning how to fence at twelve years old and for her it was appealing almost instantly.
“I was driving past my local high school with my mom, and we saw athletes inside the school cafeteria who were fully covered. We knew that it would be an easy transition for me as a young person who would eventually wear hijab. In my faith, I cover everything with the exception of my face and my hands, and playing sports that I always had to add to the uniform, fencing was unique in that I didn’t have to change anything. It just seemed to be accommodating to my religious beliefs. I always say that I didn’t find fencing, but fencing found me.”
Oddly enough, she never intended on becoming an Olympian, or a professional athlete at all for that matter. The plan was always for her to become a neurosurgeon, but after graduating from Duke University in 2007, and realizing that there had never been someone who looked like her on the US Women’s Sabre team before she shifted her goals towards fencing.
“Even though I had no world-ranking, I had never been to a senior competition, and the people around me told me it was not possible, I decided to dedicate my time and my energy to qualifying for my first national team, because I wanted to see Team USA be reflective of the America I’ve always grown to know and love.”
Since her success as an Olympian, Ibtihaj has defied the stereotypes of what an Olympian looks like and served as the inspiration for a Barbie doll in their Shero Collection, becoming a role model for girls all over the world.
“Because there have been so many spaces that I have been apart of throughout my life that really were uncharted territory, I felt like it was my opportunity to show other people who look like me—especially our youth and the younger generation—that this is something that you can have. I don’t want anyone to believe that any space is unique to one person, or that it is something that is unachievable. I really believe that we can have whatever we want in this life if we are willing to work hard for it. And if you do find yourself in a space where you are one of one, this is an opportunity for you to hold the door open for the next person and create space so that we have more diverse and inclusive spaces.”
Mariah Stackhouse also knows the impact role models can have. Before she became the seventh African-American to earn her card on the LPGA Tour, her parents instilled in her an affirmation that she uses to this day to inspire herself to achieve her dreams.
“It’s about four paragraphs long. It starts with a Bible passage and then the next few paragraphs really deal with who I am going to see myself as, how I am going to interact with the world, how I want to treat others, and how I view myself as a golfer. And I think that they understood the challenges that come to anyone growing up in the world, and as a young black woman, they wanted to equip me with a tool to always help me readily reset myself when faced with challenges that may make me currently doubt my ability or my place.”
She did not share the full four paragraphs, but this small section still resonated.
“I am a very proud person with my own ideas and my own belief in myself.”
In her own golf career as a college athlete at Stanford University, Mariah met her mentor, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, who further supported her as she worked towards her dreams. Though she admits not everyone can have a mentor as high-profile as Dr. Rice, she believes that no matter what a person is trying to pursue, there will be people who are accomplished and knowledgeable who will be willing to help guide those just starting out. The important thing, is to take those opportunities when they arise.
“I think mentorship is an incredibly important aspect of growing in whatever field it is that you endeavor to succeed in. And I think for me it is recognizing when you are forming a bond with someone that you look up to and has been successful in various ways and you want to learn from that person.”
While both of these women have made great strides in their sports, they have not been free from dealing with intolerance and racially charged microaggressions.
When faced with these microaggressions, Mariah reminds herself of the affirmation her parents taught her and thinks back on other black LPGA players like Renee Powell and Althea Gibson who helped pave the way for her, just as she hopes her career now can help pave the way for the next generation.
“I always try to remember that wherever I am, I’m there because I worked hard and I’ve earned it . . . I’m here. I deserve to be here. And my presence here and continued confidence will hopefully make it easier for someone coming up behind me in the same way that was done for me.”
Ibtihaj has had a similar approach.
“I believe that as athletes—especially as athletes of color in predominately white sports—we confront racial situations every day, even something that may seem small like a microaggression. They can be really taxing. They’re a weight that you have to carry with you through practices, through really big competitions . . . but I think it’s important that you remind yourself of your abilities, the hard work that you put in, all those long hours in the gym, that is really a moment for you to show up for yourself. I’ve been able to tackle these hurdles and speedbumps in my career by really just learning to lean on myself and understanding that what may happen in sports echoes across the world, whether it’s good or bad, and this is an opportunity for us as athletes to speak to the younger generation to really translate to a lot of different communities this message of change.”
As both a black and Muslim woman, she realized from a young age that her skin color and her faith had the potential to affect how she was treated by other people. But by reading stories about other black athletes like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jackie Robinson, and Althea Gibson, she learned that the hurdles of inequality could and had been overcome.
“We’re able to exist in our sports and have the careers that we have because of the path that was paved prior. And this is an opportunity for us to continue to push forward to continue to create change. Being a champion of change, and someone who feels really strongly about leaving the world in a better place than where it is. I want every young girl and every woman to feel empowered in the space that they exist in. And I feel like because of the role models that have come before me, I have the strength to do so.”
Sports have often been used as a platform for social justice and calls for social equality. After the murder of George Floyd and the protests that started in June of this year, Mariah shared that she was grateful for the allyship of the current and retired tour players who reached out to her to talk about the racial issues going on in the country.
“It’s easy to think that we’re women professional athletes and we travel around the world together and it’s the same. But I think in that moment it was clear that they understood that my experience as a black woman is different than theirs and had been different from theirs in this game of golf. And so to acknowledge that and recognize my blackness and to reach out and affirm that and express solidarity with the movement that was taking place meant so much to me.”
Allyship is important. Committing to change and believing that change is possible has power. Ibtihaj agreed how meaningful it is to see other athletes weighing in on social issues and using their voice and platforms to help bring light to the issues African-Americans have faced throughout the country’s history. But change doesn’t have to be limited to only those with a platform. Positive social change can start with anyone.
“There are a lot of us out there who have the ability to create inclusive spaces, to create spaces that I feel like are more diverse and create more opportunity and access, specifically to people of color.”
Finally, the talk turned toward the main theme of the KPMG Leadership Summits–inspiring the next generation of women leaders. Mariah Stackhouse finds inspiration from past athletes who helped shape the world and from the opportunities the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship gives to golfers.
“I think that I find inspiration from a lot of different things. As an athlete, I find inspiration from people like Serina Williams, your Ibtihaj Muhammads, and those who have found a way to excel in their sport and have dedicated themselves to it and they wake up each and every day ready to go get it, and make the best out of what lies ahead of them. It’s women like them who I find inspirational. It’s the people who have paved the way for me to get here . . . I’m inspired by the understanding for where I am and what took place for me to be here. And I find inspiration from that every day.”