Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad's message doesn't end with Olympic loss

Johnette Howard recaps USA fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad's early exit in her historic debut at the 2016 Olympic games.

RIO DE JANEIRO -- American sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad had spoken so often and movingly about her life as an openly observant Muslim and African-American woman at this particularly tense juncture in world events, it was easy to forget sometimes that her Olympic journey was about delivering a medal along with her message.

But the athlete in the 30-year-old Muhammad showed up Monday midway through her Round of 16 match at the Rio Summer Games against France's Ceclia Berder. Muhammad was fighting to stay in the Olympics. She got frustrated over a lost lead and then a series of calls, and the white-hot competitiveness she always told us was in her -- "Trust me," she often said with a laugh, "it's there" -- came spilling out.

Muhammad pulled off her masked helmet and began talking to the referee after Berder went ahead, 11-7. Scoring is always highly subjective in fencing, especially when both fencers clash blades or trade touches at nearly the same instance. The athletes often both pump a fist at the same time, trying to buy a call or lay claim to the same point. But this time, Muhammad got a yellow card warning. Her early 6-2 lead and the match had changed to the rallying Berder's favor now, and a few moments later, the ninth-ranked Frenchwoman, who sat one slot behind Muhammad in the world rankings, stopped Muhammad's Olympic run two wins short of the medal round with a 15-12 loss.

After that, it took the deeply disappointed Muhammad more than an hour to arrive at the postmatch media area. But when she did, the advocate who has caught attention in America and beyond for the grace of her message and eloquence of her example, was standing here again. She was asked to put her remarkable journey to this point in perspective. As usual, words didn't fail her.

Someone suggested perhaps it had been a "burden" to undertake all she had done -- training at the same time she was speaking out tirelessly about being the first American Olympian to compete in a hijab; taking on what she calls "misconceptions" about Muslims in general, and specifically Muslim women like her who wear modest clothing in observance of their faith -- but she answered the same way she always has.

"It's been a blessing," Muhammad insisted.

"I feel like things meant for me will never miss me," she added. "And I realize this moment is bigger than me. No matter what happens in my life, I try to accept it for what it is, whether it's winning or losing. I realize even with hard work, sometimes you may fall short. I worked so hard for this moment. But at the end of the day, I feel this is part of being in sport and representing my country and the Muslim community. So I always end every single match with the same sentiment, and that's that I'm thankful to God for the experience, for allowing me to even be present in this moment."

She was smiling now.

"I think this was written for me. It just fell the way it did."

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Unless Ibtihaj Muhammad alters her plans, her Olympic career will end after the sabre team competition.

Muhammad, who grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, before attending Duke University, still has another chance to win a medal here in Rio when the U.S. women compete in the team sabre competition. But she hasn't elaborated much on her plans beyond that.

The witnessing she did over the past two years, in particular, pushing back against the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has heated up around the world, both within and without the Muslim community, and her message of tolerance earned her widespread attention. Everyone from sports networks to political figures, women's organizations to religious groups sought her out. Entertainers such as Stephen Colbert and Ellen DeGeneres put her on TV, President Obama asked her to take part in a discussion panel when he made his first visit as president to an American mosque, and Time magazine named her among its 100 most influential people of 2016 and elaborated on her story.

But nobody tells the story as well as Muhammad herself.

Monday, she patiently, calmly, sometimes humorously recapped parts of it again in the cattle-chute media zone underneath Carioca Arena 3 for the latest wave of people who'd never heard it before.

She stressed how honored she was to represent the U.S. and the transformative effect sports has had on her life. She talked movingly about how she was struck at Friday's Opening Ceremony by sport's "beautiful" ability to "bring people of different cultures together under this umbrella for one purpose. ... I think that's the most important thing I take away from my whole experience at the Olympics. This whole message of tolerance."

She also spoke of hearing from girls on social media who say she has inspired them to consider doing things they've been discouraged from doing. She only obliquely alluded to the various examples she has given over these many months of how she herself has been discriminated against for wearing her hijab. (There was a stranger in Times Square who asked her if she's a "terrorist" who intends to "blow something up"; the South by Southwest security worker who smirked when she declined to remove her hijab while going through the medical detector, even though she explained she wore it for religious reasons. "Yeah, well, you're in Texas now," he said.) Monday, she preferred to dwell on the takeaway she hopes people get.

I want to break cultural norms. I want to show girls that it's important to be active, it's important to be involved
Ibtihaj Muhammad

Muhammad was asked to name the biggest misconceptions she still fights, and she said: "That someone is forcing me to wear hijab. That I'm oppressed. That I don't have a voice. Anyone who knows me knows I'm very vocal. ... Very comfortable expressing myself." She stressed what she's doing "is not just to challenge misconceptions outside the Muslim community, but also within the Muslim community. I want to break cultural norms. I want to show girls that it's important to be active, it's important to be involved."

Has she been successful changing people's minds?

"I hope so," she said. "I don't know necessarily what is going through everyone's mind at this moment."

Unless she reconsiders plans to retire from fencing, her Olympic career will end after the sabre team competition later this week.

She hasn't said what she intends to do after the Olympics, beyond continuing to run her online clothing business, Louella, which makes modest clothing for religiously observant women. A couple of questions about the coming elections in November didn't tease out any of her plans, either. But it's hard to imagine her sitting quietly on the sidelines given how Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump - a target of hers before -- has called for a national registry for all Muslims, much like some convicted criminals must now do. Muhammad has already called such talk a throwback to "dark times" in our nation's history.

It is hard to imagine her fading away quietly now.

"I think anyone who listens to the news reports at all would realize the importance of having a Muslim woman on Team USA," she said. "It's not just any team, it's the United States of America. And in light of what's going on in our country, the political thoughts that we hear about -- all these things -- I feel kind of circle back to my presence on Team USA and, again, just challenging those misconceptions that people have about who the Muslim woman is.

"It's almost like how could you not see that Muslims are like any other group, you know? We are conservatives and we are liberals, there are women who cover and women who don't. There are African-American Muslims, there are white Muslims, there are Arab Muslims. There are so many different types of Muslims. There are so many Muslim countries that have had women as their heads of state. Those are things that I want people to be aware of."

If Muhammad is right -- if this indeed has all been "written" for her, and things intended for her will not miss her -- it's smart to stay tuned. Her time in the 2016 Olympic spotlight is almost over. But Ibtihaj Muhammad is not the kind of woman who's inclined to sit on the sidelines for long. Already, she has made the conversation about race and religion in America more intelligent with her voice and example. It will be fascinating to see what she undertakes next.

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