NEW YORK — Ibtihaj Muhammad‘s clairvoyant moment came last August, when the Olympic sabre fencer made the hajj pilgrimage for her first visit to Mecca.
“When you take your reprieve from sport, or from any profession, and you take time for yourself, having an opportunity to visit the holiest place for Muslims, being Mecca, Saudi Arabia, it was really transformational for me,” Muhammad said Monday. “It was one of those things people can tell you about, but you really have to experience for yourself.”
It became fairly clear to Muhammad, who in Rio became the first Muslim-American woman to compete at the Olympics with a hijab (and earned a team bronze medal), that she would not compete again.
“I have unofficially hung up my sabre,” she said. “I feel really content with my career and where I am right now in my life. You know, fencing is not a big part of it anymore, but it’s always been my intention to transcend sport in a way that reaches people not just in the fencing world but outside of it. I think I’ve been able to best do that, not only representing my sport but representing myself.”
Muhammad became a trailblazing face of the Rio Games after she qualified six months before the Opening Ceremony, voicing advocacy for equality and showing minorities and Muslim youth that anything is possible.
She would be named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and was told by President Barack Obama, who invited Muhammad as one of 10 special guests to a speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, to “bring home the gold.”
Muhammad fenced on “Ellen” and with First Lady Michelle Obama. She finished second to Michael Phelps in voting to be the U.S. flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony.
Other Olympic champions helped Muhammad decide to step away from the strip. She last competed at the 2017 World Championships.
“It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever made,” said Muhammad, who reached the round of 16 in the individual sabre in Rio and was ranked seventh in the world that year. “I really was leaning on my friends who are in professional sport. Lindsey Vonn was giving me advice. I talked to Abby Wambach, Julie Foudy.
“What really was consistent throughout everyone that I talked to who is also a professional athlete is you’ll know when it’s time. I think that Julie and Abby had similar stories to mine, that you feel a disconnect from the sport. I don’t watch fencing anymore. I’m not really part of it in any capacity. But I think that my story is more than fencing.”
Muhammad cited two of the coolest post-Olympic experiences — her own Barbie coming out in 2017 and publishing her memoir, “Proud,” in 2018. In the book, Muhammad detailed unfriendly interactions with future Olympic teammates when she was rising in U.S. fencing.
“I have always believed that it’s important to be authentic and to tell your truth, no matter how difficult it is,” she said. “Having to unpack everything and relive these moments in telling my story, it was really difficult. And I never struggled with whether or not to tell it. It was really more so using it as this therapeutic moment to get everything off my chest that I feel is important to say.”
Muhammad continues to be visible. A Nike ad showing her screaming in her fencing uniform was put up in Times Square this spring.
“Be the hero you didn’t have,” it reads.
NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.
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