Ibtihaj Muhammed. Photo credit U.S. Embassy London / Flickr
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NEW YORK — On the narrow fencing strip where she trains, Ibtihaj Muhammad’s moves are decisive and strategic as she lunges, retreats and extends her saber with the agility and grace of a dancer; skills she has been fine-tuning since the age of 13 when she first entered the sport of fencing.
Muhammad calls upon the same work ethic in her other passion, building a burgeoning fashion business geared toward Muslim women who dress modestly.
After falling just shy of her dream to make the 2012 Olympic dream, the 29-year-old is training for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she hopes to become the first Muslim American woman to compete in a hijab, according to USA Fencing.
“You do have to be super decisive, you have to know your action and do it 100%, whether it’s right or whether it’s wrong, you just need to decide on it,” she stated in USA Today regarding saber fencing. “The sport has taught me so much about myself in the sense of time management.”
It’s also made her think about a future beyond fencing, which is part of how she became the owner and face of “Louella”; a small company which designs, manufactures and sells women’s clothing with a fashion sense appealing to Muslim women.
“I see a lot of athletes leave the sport and struggle to find work, not just necessarily finding work but a career, something that they love,” she said one afternoon between training sessions at the Fencers Club in midtown Manhattan. “I’ve been fortunate in finding something that I enjoy doing. I like working so closely with my siblings and being able to provide a service to a community that I feel is really under-served in the United States.”
As a three-time All-American academic scholarship student at Duke University, where she earned dual bachelor’s degrees in international relations and African-American studies, Muhammad launched Louella with her siblings last spring after feeling frustrated by the lack of modest women’s clothing in the marketplace.
She mentioned to her brother that she was having trouble finding a dress for an event — one that wasn’t too short or tight fitting — and he suggested she start making her own.
“I think there are other companies (that make modest clothing), but I don’t think they have the same reach,” Muhammad said.
Louella has 9,200 followers on Instagram and nearly 6,000 Facebook likes. Muhammad has about 40,000 likes on her own Facebook fan page.
“There weren’t things tha [I] or my friends would wear,” she said of the modest clothes she’d find online that were often being shipped from Dubai or Kuwait. “We wanted something not just was modest; we wanted something that was affordable.”
Three years ago, Muhammad narrowly missed making Team USA for the 2012 London Olympics. She said the attention she received in the Muslim American community for her fencing achievements made her realize her name should be attached to whatever business plan she and her brother developed.
“She has such a vast following,” Qareeb Muhammad, Ibtihaj’s brother said. He works with the manufacturers in California. “It’s amazing; people that are her followers (in social media) encouraged her to start her own fashion line… A lot of people admired the way she dressed. I thought it was a great opportunity.”
With the opportunity has come long hours of Face Time chats and collaborating with her siblings on the business. Her three sisters help with all facets of Louella — brainstorming design ideas, choosing fabric, modeling the clothes for marketing and managing the warehouse.
Louella has grown quickly, expanding its clothing line and its presence online with accounts on Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook.
When she’s not traveling the world to compete, Muhammad balances cross-training, fencing with teammates, including her sister Faizah, and lessons with her coach with the demands of running a small business. When she’s on the road for fencing, she brings her laptop to stay connected.
On Wednesday, Muhammad was part of the U.S. saber team that won gold at the Pan American Championships in Santiago, Chile, along with Mariel Zagunis, Dagmara Wozniak and Eliza Stone. She placed fifth in the individual saber event Sunday.
Ranked No. 11 in the world, Muhammad has reached medal podiums at the top levels in her sport, winning gold in the team event at last year’s world championships in Kazan, Russia, with Zagunis, Wozniak and Stone.
As one of the founders of the Peter Westbrook Foundation, Don Anthony Jr. has watched Muhammad develop in the sport. Founded by five-time Olympian Peter Westbrook, the foundation based in New York introduces minority children to fencing and also supports elite level fencers like Muhammad. Through the foundation, she now serves as a mentor to kids who show up Saturday mornings to learn to fence.
Anthony, the board president of USA Fencing, sees tremendous change in the sport he has been involved in for more than three decades, especially in the increased diversity of the national teams.
“Now there are so many different minorities in the sport,” he said, “that you walk into it and it looks like America now.”
For now, Muhammad says she’s focused on qualifying for this year’s world championships, then she’ll focus on making the team for Rio, where she could be a part of U.S. Olympic history. There have been a handful of Muslim women wearing hijab to compete for other countries at the Olympics.
In her TeamUSA biography, Muhammad stated, “When most people picture an Olympic fencer, they probably do not imagine a person like me. Fortunately, I am not most people. I have always believed that with hard work, dedication, and perseverance, I could one day walk with my U.S. teammates into Olympic history.”
She added that fencing has taught her “how to aspire higher, sacrifice, work hard and overcome defeat. I want to compete in the Olympics for the United States to prove that nothing should hinder anyone from reaching their goals — not race, religion or gender. I want to set an example that anything is possible with perseverance.”
Muhammad hopes the exposure she receives as a world-class fencer will inspire others to follow in her footsteps. Already she receives random emails from Muslim parents seeking her advice.
“People are just appreciative that there is someone that they can show their kids. It’s OK for you to wear hijab and participate in sport.”