Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad on 'Proud' memoir, battling depression and her American dream

Courtesy Hachette Book Group

With a saber in tow, Ibtihaj Muhammad is charting her own unique path.

"I've had to fight for every win, every place at the table, every ounce of respect on my path to world-class athlete. And I will continue to fight because the prize this time -- an America that truly respects all of its citizens -- is worth more than any medal. Inshallah: so, may it be."

These last few sentences in Ibtihaj Muhammad's upcoming memoir, "Proud," released on Tuesday, are powerful. It also summarizes her book (published in two versions; young readers and adult) perfectly. Fencing made her who she is today, but fencing isn't her only narrative. Her journey is one of authenticity at all costs and being unapologetically herself. Throughout the book, Muhammad screams out loud, "If I can achieve success as a black, Muslim-American woman wearing a hijab, so can you."

In this conversation with espnW, the Olympic bronze medalist talks about her struggles as a woman of color in the U.S., why it's important for young girls to read her story, how to bring positive change in the country as a religious minority and her next big project.

espnW: What made you want to tell your story now?

Ibtihaj Muhammad: It was difficult to navigate a traditionally white sport as a woman of color. I want to motivate people and inspire them in a way that isn't necessarily about fencing. It's more so about breaking free from the confines of society's limited expectations of us. As women, as people of color, as religious minorities -- we have to be our best selves.

And writing a book is so therapeutic. I worked through many tough moments. I got to think about why these things happened. Additionally, I got to talk about depression in a way that I have never really discussed with anyone, other than my mom and my sports psychologist. I was able to be vulnerable and work through things. Depression is taboo within the black and Muslim communities, and I would say, sports as a whole. It's relatively new to find professional athletes talking about depression in an [honest] way.

espnW: You specifically wanted young girls to digest this read. Why?

IM: I know how hard it can be growing up in a society that tries to tell you that you are not beautiful enough, skinny enough, white enough -- eyes aren't blue enough, your hair is not blonde enough. It's important that we teach young girls to believe that they are capable and enough, just as they are.

espnW: You have quotes by athletes, authors and activists of color that lead into each chapter. How did that idea come into play?

IM: I used a lot of historical figures and people that I look to for inspiration. At your darkest moments -- maybe you're not the right person for the job, maybe this is too difficult, maybe this isn't what I should be doing -- it's during those moments when you look at the words of [author] Zora Neale Hurston, times when you feel super-motivated by Michelle Obama. I think that's what has helped me arrive at where I am, not just as an athlete, but as a person.

espnW: What defines you as an athlete?

IM: My skin color, wearing the hijab, being a Muslim and being a woman of color, these things have the power to shape how people treat me within the sport. People would put limitations or boundaries toward what I was capable of. But, there's something to be said for hard work. I wanted to be the first person in the gym and the last one to leave, and a lot of that is about defying expectations that people had in me.

When I decided I was going to try and make the Olympic team at age 23, I didn't know if it was possible. But that wasn't going to stop me from trying. I embarked on this mission and put my soul into making the national team not because I aspired to be a professional athlete but because I wanted to change the sport. I wanted to be the first Muslim woman to go to the Olympics from the United States wearing a hijab, which I did at the [2016 Rio Games]. It was a journey for "us," and us being anyone who has ever been told "no" -- that they are not capable. It's about creating spaces that are inclusive and diverse because that's the Team USA and America that I know.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Muhammad during the Women's Sabre Team Semifinal at the Rio Olympics.

espnW: You walked away from fencing during your junior year of college. Do you regret losing those three critical years before you went back to the sport at age 23?

IM: No, I don't regret it at all. Being a student athlete is so difficult, and I would argue even more so at a school like Duke -- it was even harder than it would have probably been for me in a state school.

It was the right decision to make. I was unhappy on the fencing team. I loved the sport in a way that was different from my teammates. I wanted to train and win a national title, and that wasn't the energy that was there on the team. It was almost like a club sport, and I felt like I was sacrificing a lot by being there. College for a student-athlete means [balancing] academics, athletics, and social life -- I felt like I had to choose two instead of having all three.

espnW: Out of curiosity, what was your thought process behind writing about the 9/11 attacks and your experience as a Muslim-American?

IM: The Muslim experience post-9/11 and the Muslim experience now are eerily similar, if not harder in this moment. Because I grew up in [Maplewood, New Jersey], a town that is very close to New York City, having my mom's sister working in New York right near the tower, it hit home. For a lot of the kids in my classes, their parents worked in New York. I was 15 in 2001, and it was a defining moment. Being Muslim [was no longer] just a private thing, where you participate when you're at home, all of sudden [my religion] became a public [experience].

espnW: Tell us about the epilogue of the story. You discuss your journey to winning an Olympic medal, having a Barbie doll made in your likeness and other wins. Why close the book in this manner?

IM: I know how much seeing Serena and Venus [Williams] meant to me as a kid. I know what it feels like to see someone and see yourself in them, then feeling infinitely more capable because someone else who looks like you are doing it. My journey has been a blessing, and I hope it can impart inspiration onto others.

espnW: What is the next chapter in Ibtihaj Muhammad's book of life?

IM: I am executive producing my first show in a few weeks, and I am excited about that. I am working with [media platforms] The Players' Tribune and Conde Nast to produce content around women in sport and to tell stories from their point of view, which has always been near and dear to me.

This interview has been edited for length. 

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