When Ibtihaj Muhammad graduated from Duke as a three-time all-American in fencing, she was unsure if she saw a future for herself in the sport.
No one wore a hijab while competing and she figured no one else had essentially been told that they couldn't be successful in the tactical sport because they were Black, she said.
Motivated by the idea that people did not believe in her, she took a leap of faith at a career in fencing.
"Even though I had no world ranking and had never been to a senior competition, and the people around me were telling me that it wasn't possible, I decided that it was," Muhammad told USA TODAY Sports.
Ibtihaj Muhammad of the United States poses with her bronze medals on the podium after the women's sabre fencing event at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. (Photo: AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Muhammad, an Olympic bronze medalist who became the first U.S. woman to compete in the Olympic Games wearing a hijab in 2016, uses the doubts of others to fuel her success.
"In that moment it is not for you. It is for your younger self, it is for all those times that someone told you that you're not smart enough, you're not strong enough, you're not capable," she said. "You do it to defy the odds, to shut down the naysayers and hopefully hold the door open for more people who do look like us to exist in this space and see themselves living out that dream that for a really long time seemed impossible."
For Mariah Stackhouse, a four-time all-American at Stanford and now the only Black full-time golfer on the LPGA tour, she sees being the "only" or the "first" as an opportunity.
Stackhouse noticed a shift as she transitioned from youth golf to college to playing professionally. The number of Black women she would compete against dwindled. This became a driving force for wanting to succeed and eventually bring more Black women to the sport.
May 30, 2019; Charleston, SC, USA; Mariah Stackhouse tees off on the 12th hole during the first round of the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament at Country Club of Charleston. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports (Photo: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)
Muhammad, 34, and Stackhouse, 26, share an unwavering commitment to not allowing their Blackness to deter them from their goals. The two will discuss how they've broken barriers in sport Wednesday as part of a panel for the KPMG Women's Leadership Summit, which will be held virtually due to the pandemic. Stackhouse is in the field for this week's KPMG Women's PGA Championship, beginning Thursday at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Penn.
"When you play a sport that is predominantly white from a young age, you learn very quickly how to feel like you belong in that space. You have to," said Stackhouse.
But for many Black women, reaching their goals while carrying the weight of expectations placed onto them by society is only half the battle. After Black women claim a seat at the table, they must then succeed, being nothing shy of perfect. For Stackhouse and Muhammad, these expectations are amplified as athletes.
"I think to be Black and to be a professional athlete that there is an expectation that you have to show up perfect all the time," Muhammad said. "That you have to come on your LeBron James, Serena Williams status and anything other than that is problematic."
Muhammad has felt the pressure of having to perform perfectly since she was a child and once she won her first world championship in the team saber event in 2014, the pressure did not disappear.
"That pressure feels like you are carrying it with you. I felt like I was carrying it with me on the fencing strip all the time," she said. "I felt that pressure to show up to be on top, to be the world's best all the time and it can be difficult. And how you deal with that I think a lot of it is mental."
With therapy and the guidance of a sport psychologist, Muhammad is able to work through the pressures of having to be perfect within her craft.
Growing up, Stackhouse's mentality of knowing she belonged in the sport of golf and her ability to deal with societal pressures came from her parents.
"I think one of the things that has afforded me mental strength is something that my parents did for me when I was very young," said Stackhouse. "They wrote me an affirmation that I say to myself in the mirror every day. It's four paragraphs long and it's literally filled with who I am as a person, how I treat other people, how I treat myself and my work ethic. It has instilled in me a confidence to move through spaces with a feeling that I am there because I earned it and I belong."
In 2020, Black athletes have seemingly taken on a new responsibility — dealing with the realities of racial injustice that have been in the headlines this summer while still performing at the highest level.
"I can think back to when George Floyd was murdered earlier this year and that was probably one of the toughest times for me," Stackhouse said. "Dealing and directly looking at social and racial injustice within this country, some of the buddies of mine on tour that reached out to me directly. I didn't expect it, but to know that there was that respect and acknowledgment of my humanity as a Black person in America and for that allyship and for that solidarity to be said with such conviction so directly, made me feel very happy that I have found those friendships on tour."
This year has been especially eye-opening for Muhammad.
"It's an interesting moment that we're living in, especially when we look at it a bit closely within our own sports. I think it does pull back the curtain a little bit and maybe for us especially as minorities. That push back [is something] that we may have always felt within our sport."
In June a prominent fencing coach said during a lesson that was recorded that he believed [Abraham] "Lincoln made a mistake" in freeing slaves. Muhammad says the moment truly showed that racism does exist in the sport aligning with how it exists in the country today.
"This was like a bubble that had to burst at some point," she said. "It's unfortunate that it took George Floyd, it's unfortunate that it took Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor for us as a global community to understand this fight that we as Black people have been on our whole lives."
Muhammad says change will come when people who have the privilege to not experience racism realize that pushing for equality is their fight as well.
"It's important that our allies understand what we're going through. As difficult as it's been, I do think that change is inevitable," she said.
Despite the challenges that being a minority in their sports have presented, Stackhouse and Muhammad have still managed to break barriers. Both hope to continue excelling while being an inspiration to other Black women and girls within golf, fencing and in society.
"I think the passion has to come from simply me wanting to be the best that I can be, and my goal is for that best to get me to be the best and have the opportunity to bring others up with me," said Stackhouse.
Added Muhammad: "I have like a fierce determination to be seen, to be heard and to move in the world in a way that I want to be seen. I hope that whoever is out there and watching, fencing or golf or whatever it is, whether it's in tech or the sciences, know that you have the ability to exist in that space, you just have to be determined enough to work hard enough to get there."
Contact Analis Bailey at [email protected] or on Twitter @analisbailey.
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