The comforting, feel-good narrative was that Ibtihaj Muhammad of the United States did not need to win a fencing match, let alone a fencing medal, for her first Olympic experience to be considered a success.
But now that Muhammad is going to leave Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with a bronze medal, her story is even bigger, better and more befitting a Hollywood script.
Muhammad made history back in February by simply qualifying for the U.S. Olympic fencing team. She would become the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab headscarf.
The symbolism of the 30-year-old from New Jersey donning hijab on the world’s biggest sporting stage wouldn’t be quite as meaningful if she were representing a Muslim-majority country, or even a country in which the Muslim minority population was more socially accepted.
But we’re talking about the USA, where Muslim men are suspects and Muslim women are targets. Where one of the two leading candidates for president in 2016 is a man who has proposed implementing a ban on Muslims entering the country.
Whether she wanted to or not, Muhammad entered these Olympics as an ambassador for Muslim Americans. Fortunately, she accepted and embraced the role. The three-time fencing All-American at Duke University, ranked No. 8 in the world in the sabre discipline, did the whole circuit of talk show appearances and media interviews leading up to Rio.
Mainstream media outlets and marketing campaigns made Muhammad one of the most recognizable faces of Team USA, right alongside swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, gymnast Simone Biles, basketball stars Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, and track stars Allyson Felix and Ashton Eaton.
The biggest difference between Muhammad and those athletes wasn’t that she is Muslim and they are not.
The biggest difference was that they were all expected to win gold medals in Rio, while she was not.
Muhammad’s presence in Rio was widely viewed as being more about winning people over than it was about winning against her opponents.
In Muhammad’s first taste of Olympic competition, the women’s individual sabre tournament, she won her first-round match but was defeated in the round of 16. She was eliminated from medal contention.
In the team sabre tournament on Saturday, Muhammad helped the U.S. — featuring herself, Dagmara Wozniak, Monica Aksamit and Mariel Zagunis — defeat Poland in the first round. They lost to Russia in the next round. But in the bronze-medal match, the U.S. beat Italy, and Muhammad found herself on the medal podium.
“This is sport,” said Wozniak. “It doesn’t matter what hair color you have, or what religion you are. The point is to go out there and be the best athlete you can be.
“We’re the best explanation of what American is. A mix of so many different cultures and races, and everything all together.”
In the aftermath of winning the bronze medal, I haven’t found any quotes from Muhammad regarding her competitive future.
The next Olympics will be in Tokyo, Japan, in 2020. Muhammad will be 34 years old then. While there are some female fencing competitors in Rio at or around that age, most of the medal winners are in their 20s. Muhammad won’t be too old to be an elite fencer in 2020, but a younger class of Americans may come along who are just a bit better.
If this was Muhammad’s first and last Olympics, she still made a lasting impact. She is the first Muslim American woman to win an Olympic medal. While her sport isn’t mainstream popular in the U.S., Muhammad herself is a star.
She has thousands of followers on social media. TIME magazine named her one of its “100 Most Influential People” for 2016. She owns a fashion line called Louella, made for women who want to dress modestly. She has been to the White House to meet with current President Barack Obama. Motivational speaking seems like a natural fit. Offers for book deals and movie rights may be in her future.
After these Olympics, Muhammad can continue to be an ambassador for Muslim Americans. She made her mark on history before she stepped onto the Olympic field of play. She announced her agenda before she scored a point in Rio.
But now, Muhammad’s success makes her statement even stronger.