One of the most surprising things about the trailblazing Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad’s memoir, Proud: Living My American Dream, is that she nearly gave up the sport she loved for a law career.
Three months after graduating from Duke University, the New Jersey native found that the post–9/11 world was not ready to accept her in hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women: Her applications for jobs and law schools she was qualified for led to one rejection after another. Muhammad became depressed. She started working at a Dollar Store near her home as a cashier, then a substitute teacher before she returned to fencing, the sport that brought her joy.
But she started to feel that fencing might not be the best use of her time and efforts. “I think it was important to include that part of my journey because it’s similar for other athletes,” Muhammad says. “Elite level competition can cost upward of $25,000 a year, and coming from a working-class family, it wasn’t possible for me to try to compete without working. Then there’s the struggle of being a woman of color trying to break into corporate America—it’s one of those things you don’t know. Is it my skin color? Is it because I’m a woman? Is it the hijab?”
Proud, released simultaneously in two versions—one for young readers, another for adults—is thoughtful and candid. It’s also a refreshingly diverse Cinderella story at a time when anti-black and anti-Muslim sentiments are high. The politics and racial animus that have added to Muhammad’s adversities are detailed in the adult version in greater detail, but the young reader’s edition focuses on reminding youth to stay the course regardless of external obstacles.
Muhammad is now a superstar Olympic fencer who made history as the first U.S. athlete to compete in hijab and the first Muslim-American woman to receive a medal when she won bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She’s an entrepreneur who runs a business, Louella, selling modest women’s clothing with her siblings. Later this month, Mattel will release a Barbie doll named in her honor—another first that is especially moving because of how meaningful and scarce black dolls are for young girls of color.
But Muhammad had to put aside the painful dismissiveness of a few hostile coaches and the nearly debilitating isolation she felt from her teammates, which led to depression, fatigue, and anxiety.
“I wrote about that struggle because a lot of people don’t get over that hump,” she says. “People think that there are limitations to what women and people of color can achieve. It’s part of my life’s work to break through that box people try to put you in.”
The key to unlocking her strengths and potential came from making an internal shift. “For a really long time, I tried to do everything to make my teammates feel more comfortable with me as a Muslim. As a black woman, you’re constantly fighting what people place on you and at the same time dispel the stereotypes they have about you and others,” she says. “At some point, I had the epiphany that no matter what hoops I jumped through, they’d never accept me. People are going to have their biases; you shouldn’t let that dictate your happiness. When I arrived at that understanding, my results skyrocketed. I let it run off my back. I left it all on the fencing strip.”
The rest is now history—a history she and others can take great pride in.
Joshunda Sanders is an author and educator in New York City.