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 m