She is a barrier-breaking athlete, who smashes records as easily as she defeats her opponents. However Ibtihaj Muhammad, who in 2016 became the first Muslim American woman to compete for the US in the Olympics in hijab, admits it hasn’t been an easy rise to the top. In fact, the champion fencer, who is also the first Muslim American woman to win a medal at the sporting tournament, has opened up about her battles with anxiety as she promotes her new memoir, Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream.
The fencer, who took home a bronze medal from Rio de Janeiro as part of Team USA’s women’s saber team, told Glamour this week that she first suffered from performance anxiety in 2014. “At first, I had no idea what was happening. The morning of a competition I’d wake up feeling lethargic and sleepy—overwhelmingly so—despite having had a good night’s rest,” Muhammad revealed. “At game time I’d step onto the fencing strip and feel completely detached from reality.” The Olympian, who was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2016, added that she knew she couldn’t correct the issue on her own, so sought the help of a sports psychologist.
“Self-care is important,” the 32-year-old said, adding that breathing techniques and exercises helped her find calm and focus. “It is not a sign of weakness to seek help when you need it. In fact, it’s brave.” Muhammad, who has her own modest clothing store Louella as well as a hijab-wearing Barbie created in her likeness, also relies on a set of headphones to help get her in a fighting spirit. “They’re a way to deter people from talking to me while I get in the zone and also let me listen to my favorite music for extra motivation,” she told Glamour. “Saber fencers are like the sprinters of fencing. Everything is so fast, so you have to come out of the blocks quick at game time.” With a stigma still surrounding issues of mental health, we applaud Muhammad’s candor and refreshing honesty, as she helps inspire a younger generation who may also be fighting internal battles.