NEW YORK (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama wrapped up her speech to dozens of U.S. athletes to mark 100 days before the Rio Games and immediately headed over to a temporary court set up in the middle of Times Square.
There she was greeted by Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad, the two women sharing a long embrace. Muhammad then gave Mrs. Obama a quick fencing lesson before the first lady and a young girl practiced their technique with foam foils.
In the meticulously staged photo op Wednesday was plenty of symbolism, and Muhammad, who is set to become the first American to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab, feels comfortable as the face of that message.
This Olympic year is also an election year, one in which Republican front-runner Donald Trump has suggested that Muslims be banned from entering the United States. Amid that backdrop, Muhammad, a 30-year-old New Jersey native, finds herself with many opportunities to speak out.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re in this moment, especially during the presidential election, where people feel so comfortable voicing their dislike or the discontent for people of a particular background, a particular race or a particular religion,” she told reporters later. “We as Americans have to fight that, because that goes against the very values that we stand for.
“I feel like I’m in this position and I have to use it, and I want to use it well. I don’t want to waste my time as an athlete; I want to reach as many people as I can – just not with my skills within my sport but also with my voice.”
Muhammad, who qualified for Rio in saber, said she found out only a few hours earlier that she’d be fencing with Mrs. Obama. She had met the president before but not the first lady.
Mrs. Obama later took part in passing drills with kids and members of the U.S. women’s basketball team.
Earlier, with dozens of American athletes from various sports standing behind her, the first lady described herself as a “real, lifelong, die-hard Olympics fan.” She reminisced about growing up on Chicago’s South Side, where the kids would crowd around one neighbor’s TV and “watch for hours.”
“Once the games were over, we would all run outside and set up some makeshift hurdle or some balance beam, and we’d try to imitate our heroes,” Mrs. Obama said in announcing a partnership by the U.S. Olympic Committee, NBC and summer sport national governing bodies called “Gold Map” that will encourage youngsters to take up Olympic sports.