Ibtihaj Muhammad made history, even if she didn’t medal

Ibtihaj Muhammad
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RIO DE JANEIRO – When Ibtihaj Muhammad emerged about an hour after her elimination, composed and ready to talk, she returned to a media mixed zone and found more than a dozen American journalists who waited for her.

“At the normal fencing competitions, we don’t have to deal with this many press,” Muhammad said. “Actually, we don’t have press.”

Muhammad, who won her first-round bout and then lost in the round of 16, made history by becoming the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women.

That alone merited coverage, even a lengthy wait for grumbling media.

She found a short cut out of the media area after her loss, so print reporters had no idea of her emotional state.

When she returned, she was composed, analytical and well spoken. No signs of the usual grief accompanying Olympic defeat.

She was disappointed of course but recognized her achievement.

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“In this moment, you’re thinking about what just happened. I’m thinking about every single point, I’m running through my head what I could have done differently,” she said. “I realize that this moment is bigger than me.”

Also developing is what journalists call a trend story for women’s sabre as a whole.

Women’s sabre has garnered a share of attention in the U.S. at four straight Games, among a crowded Olympic program that’s at 34 sports and growing larger for Tokyo 2020.

Mariel Zagunis made most of those headlines in 2004, winning the first U.S. Olympic fencing title in 100 years, and in 2008, leading an individual sabre sweep on the first day of the Games.

You may remember the Beijing medal-winning trio – Zagunis, Sada Jacobson and Becca Ward — did a sitdown interview with Bob Costas that aired during primetime six years ago.

In 2012, Zagunis was selected as the U.S. flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony. Again, more spotlight for the sport.

Muhammad took it to another level after qualifying for her first Olympic team in February.

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She appeared on Ellen, fenced with the First Lady in Times Square (foam swords) and reportedly was runner-up to Michael Phelps to carry the flag into the Opening Ceremony.

“It’s a small sport, and it’s hard for us to elbow our way to the front when it comes to getting media attention,” said Zagunis, who was upset in the round of 16 on Monday. “Especially during the Olympic Games, it’s our time to shine, but of course you have all the other bigger, more popular sports. … I think sabre fencing is the best it’s ever been right now.”

Muhammad, Zagunis and Dagmara Wozniak were all eliminated before the quarterfinals Monday. Better results were expected, as Zagunis is ranked No. 3 in the world and Muhammad is No. 8.

The trio has been on the national team together for several years.

Zagunis valued a hug she received from Wozniak in an athletes-only area after their defeats. Wozniak is known to wear three bracelets – one given to her by her sister, another from her fencing club and a third from Zagunis.

“We just said that we’re going to be ready to bring it for the team event,” on Saturday, Zagunis said.

The U.S. trio is a medal contender – the AP and Sports Illustrated both predicted silver before the Games.

There will be a decent size media contingent, perhaps more if Zagunis, Muhammad and Wozniak reach the semifinals or final.

And then it will be over.

If Zagunis and Muhammad continue fencing, they will go back to non-Olympic competitions and little American press.

Fencing is one five sports that has been contested at every Olympics since the first modern Games in 1896.

The others – cycling, gymnastics, swimming and track and field – have much stronger followings (outside of the Olympics for cycling, but certainly during the Games for the other three).

And of the six events in fencing, it’s quite remarkable that women’s sabre has been the one at the heart of the quadrennial attention.

Women’s sabre was the last event to be added to the Olympic fencing program – debuting in Athens 2004.

Men have fenced in the Olympics since 1896, women’s foil was added in 1924 and women’s épée in 1996.

Muhammad could have some non-fencing opportunities waiting for her after these Games. Maybe she takes them.

Zagunis said she’s not yet thinking about whether she will pursue a fifth Olympics in 2020, when she will be 35 years old. She will take a few months off after Rio, though.

Even if neither is around in four years, women’s sabre could again see an uptick in attention at the next Olympics.

There’s already a notable name on the horizon – Muhammad’s younger sister, Faizah, who is ranked seventh in the U.S. in the sabre.

“I always tell people that she’s way more talented than I am; I just work harder than her,” Muhammad said, eliciting laughs. “I’m hoping that you guys see her in 2020.”

Summer McIntosh, Canadian teen swimmer, caps record year with another historic time

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Summer McIntosh swam the fourth-fastest 400m individual medley in history on Friday, capping a year that already included world titles, Commonwealth Games titles and a victory over Katie Ledecky.

McIntosh, a 16-year-old Canadian whose mom swam at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, won the 400m IM in 4 minutes, 28.61 seconds at the U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C. She prevailed by a Ledecky-like 13.24 seconds, breaking her own national record that was previously the fourth-fastest time in history.

“It’s still pretty early in the season, so I didn’t really know what to expect going into it,” she said on Peacock.

The only two women who ever went faster in the event known as the decathlon of swimming are Olympic gold medalists: Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu (world record 4:26.36 and 4:28.58) and China’s Ye Shiwen (4:28.43).

McIntosh has come a long way in a short time. Three years ago, she put all her eggs in the 1500m freestyle basket, thinking it was her best shot to merely qualify for the Tokyo Games in 2020. The one-year Olympic postponement was a blessing.

The rapidly improving McIntosh swam three individual events in Tokyo with a top finish of fourth in the 400m free, just missing becoming the youngest swimming medalist since 1996. She then told her coach she wanted to become an IMer.

At this past June’s world championships, McIntosh won two of the most grueling events — 400m IM and 200m butterfly — to become the youngest individual world champion since 2011. She also took silver to Ledecky in the 400m free, an event in which she later beat Ledecky in a short-course meet (25-meter pool rather than the 50-meter pool used for the Olympics).

A month after worlds, McIntosh swept the IMs at the Commonwealth Games, where she broke more world junior records and again took second in the 400m free (this time to Olympic champ and world record holder Ariarne Titmus of Australia).

McIntosh, who turned professional last year, now trains full-time in Sarasota, Florida, where she rents a house with her mom, Jill Horstead, who was ninth in the 200m fly at the 1984 Olympics (McIntosh, whose passions include the Kardashians and plants from Target, has seen video of her mom winning the B final at those Games). They’re a three-hour drive down Interstate 75 from Ledecky’s base in Gainesville.

Also Friday, Erin Gemmell celebrated her 18th birthday by nearly becoming the first American to beat Ledecky in a 200m freestyle in nearly nine years. Ledecky won by 42 hundredths of a second in 1:56.74 and said she had an off-day while also praising Gemmell, the daughter of her former coach.

NBC airs U.S. Open highlights on Dec. 10 at 4:30 p.m. ET.

U.S. OPEN SWIMMING: Full Results

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Kaillie Humphries begins trek to 2026 Winter Olympics with monobob World Cup win

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Kaillie Humphries is off to a strong start to a four-year cycle that she hopes ends with her breaking the record as the oldest female Olympic bobsledder.

Humphries, the women’s record holder with three Olympic bobsled titles, earned her first World Cup victory since February’s Winter Games, taking a monobob in Park City, Utah, on Friday.

Humphries, the first Olympic monobob champion, prevailed by .31 of a second over German Lisa Buckwitz combining times from two runs at the 2002 Olympic track.

Humphries has said since February’s Olympics that she planned to take time off in this four-year cycle to start a family, then return in time for the 2026 Milano-Cortina Winter Games. Humphries, who can become the first female Olympic bobsledder in her 40s, shared her experiences with IVF in the offseason on her social media.

“We’ve pushed pause so that I could go and compete this season, maintain my world ranking to be able to still work towards my 2026 goals, and we’ll go back in March to do the implantation of the embryos that we did retrieve,” she said, according to TeamUSA.org.

The next Games come 20 years after her first Olympic experience in Italy, which was a sad one. Humphries, then a bobsled push athlete, was part of the Canadian delegation at the 2006 Torino Games, marched at the Opening Ceremony and had her parents flown in to cheer her on.

But four days before the competition, Humphries learned she was not chosen for either of the two Canadian push athlete spots. She vowed on the flight home to put her future Olympic destiny in her own hands by becoming a driver.

She has since become the greatest female driver in history — Olympic golds in 2010, 2014 and 2022, plus five world championships.

Her longtime rival, five-time Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor, plans to return to competition from her second childbirth later in this Olympic cycle and can also break the record of oldest female Olympic bobsledder.

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