The following is an excerpt from “Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream,” by United States Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad. Muhammad is an American fencer who rose to fame during the 2016 Summer Olympics, where she became the first U.S. Olympian to compete, and win a medal, while wearing hijab.
I put a lot of effort into being a great teammate. I tried to keep a smile on my face all the time. When we were on the road, I tried to initiate team dinners and arrange group outings when we landed in a new country or city for a competition. I held my tongue in times of dispute. I would compliment my teammates to show them I appreciated their skill and expertise on the strip.
I barely recognized myself as I tried to assimilate into the team. I went above and beyond to show them my best self. But my efforts to extend the olive branch of friendship were rarely, if ever, reciprocated. My dinner invitations were often turned down, as were my invitations for movie nights in our hotel rooms or sightseeing when we arrived in a new city.
“Is there any plan to go out for a team dinner?” I asked the team manager once after practice. We were at a World Cup competition, and I had heard some talk of going out to a restaurant instead of eating at the hotel.
“No, not this time, Ibtihaj,” the manager told me. “You should probably just order in and be ready for the competition tomorrow,” she said.
I went back to my room. All of the travel for competitions was beginning to weigh on me. I was lonely and homesick. I had no one to talk to and no one cheering in my corner. I consoled myself with the knowledge that with no dinner plans, I’d have more time to sleep and prepare for tomorrow’s competition
The next morning when I boarded the bus to the venue, I tried to make small talk as I knew we had a 30-minute ride ahead of us.
“What did you do for dinner last night?” I asked my teammate, Daria. “I ordered from the restaurant in the hotel and it was really good.”
Daria turned to our other teammate, Mariel before answering. “Oh, we all went to this restaurant near the hotel.”
“We tried to call your room but got no answer,” Dagmara, our fourth teammate, jumped in.
“That’s strange,” I said. “My phone never rang, and I don’t show any missed calls.”
Dagmara shrugged. “I don’t know who made the call, but I know someone did. But anyway, you didn’t really miss anything. The food wasn’t that good.”
I turned to our team manager, Cathy, who happened to also be Mariel’s mother. (Yes, our team manager was the parent of our star team member.) “You told me there was no team dinner,” I said.
Never taking her eyes from the pages of her magazine, Cathy said with an annoyingly false note of concern, “Ibtihaj, it was nothing official. If it had been, I would have told you.”
“Right,” I said doubtfully. Inside I was hurt. They clearly hadn’t invited me on purpose. I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes. I tried to sleep, willing the ride to be over as soon as possible.
I spent the rest of my first year on the national team progressing as an athlete as I worked to climb the rankings, but socially, despite my best efforts, my attempts to bond with my teammates were consistently met with resistance deserving only of pariah. I realized these women had known each other longer, but I couldn’t help but wonder if their behavior was intentional. They would routinely watch movies together in one of their hotel rooms but never invite me. When they made plans for dinner, I never got a call to tag along. And because we were only a team of four, being the one person left out when the other three gathered was all the more hurtful.
Sometimes I would go to my room and call my mother and just cry from sheer frustration. I felt so foolish crying over the fact that my teammates were being mean to me, but it was just such a letdown to have finally “made it” and yet feel so alone at the top.
I knew my mom was right. I didn’t need them to be my friends, but spending so much time on the road, away from my family and friends, was hard enough without the pain of feeling like “the other” all the time. The feelings of dismissal and exclusion were overwhelming and suffocating for me.
In general, it seemed my teammates and the coaching staff had a very superficial idea of who I was as a fencer and a person. They attributed my qualifying for the national team as a stroke of luck instead of the result of hard work and talent, and they attributed my wins on the team to brute strength and blind speed instead of intelligence and planning. Like so many other black athletes, I was being pigeonholed as strong but not smart. The stereotyping and bias was incredibly exasperating, not to mention disheartening. The seemingly small events like leaving me off a team email chain or forgetting to include my name on the team list while on the road added up to a bigger problem.
Despite my success on the strip, I was feeling increasingly unhappy. I wanted so badly to understand what I had done to make my teammates and the coaching staff treat me so coldly. I had never felt more lonely or disconnected in my life.
Because I spent so much time alone during our competitions, I dedicated far too many hours to trying to dissect what was happening with my team. It was too easy to assume that their behavior toward me was based on some sort of racial or religious prejudice. But I wasn’t convinced that was it. I would lie in bed and wonder if it was because I was unapologetically competitive on the strip. Even if I had to fence against one of them in competition, I didn’t suspend my desire to win. Maybe they saw me as some sort of threat. Maybe I was breaking some sort of long-standing code that the newest member on the team wasn’t supposed to win and make her teammates look bad.
But Mariel and Dagmara were seasoned competitors and had been on Team USA consistently. They didn’t need to fear me. Yet the more success that came my way, the harsher the treatment from my teammates and coaches became. After combing through all of the possibilities, my head would ache and I was back to where I started. In the end I decided that the women’s saber team simply wasn’t ready for change — an African American Muslim was too much difference all at once. I think my team viewed me as so different from themselves they didn’t know how to relate, and they weren’t willing to put in the effort to figure it out. It was a sobering thought, but it was what I’d been given.
I recognized that I couldn’t force my teammates and coaches to push past their own limited thinking. That was something they would have to do on their own.