Create & Cultivate 100: Health + Wellness: Ibtihaj Muhammad

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Ibtihaj Muhammad made history at the Rio Summer Olympics when she was the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States in the Olympics. Then, she made history again when she medaled. Now, after writing a memoir about her life leading up to her experience at the Olympics (Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream), she’s an active voice for young women pursuing their dreams despite obstacles. Below, she shares her story and what keeps her moving forward.

On misconceptions about Muslim athletes…

We exist. For the Olympic team, for the United States, I’ve changed the narrative for the Muslim community in the way that we’ve been perceived. And if you take that a step further and look at the way Muslim women see themselves, these young girls who haven’t had anyone at this level of sport do that on the world stage — compete at the highest level of sport. To do that is changing the way Muslim women think about themselves and perceive themselves.

On refuting stereotypes…

The chances are for anyone that you won’t go to the Olympic Games. You certainly will not medal. For me, I’ve always spent my entire life pushing back against society’s limited expectations of me, not only as a woman but as a person of color and a Muslim. Being the first Muslim woman to represent the United States and bring home a medal for a country was a great opportunity to push back against the narrative that has been perpetuated in the media and Hollywood. It’s just not true.

On how she quiets her anxiety…

The doctor explained how performance anxiety was manifesting itself with physical symptoms of fatigue and more. She gave me exercises I could use whenever I felt the symptoms coming on, to de-escalate my mind from its anxious state. Every morning I’d spend 15 minutes in prayer and meditation, which helped me start my day from a calm, centered place. On competition days I’d take another 15 minutes to focus on my breathing and my thoughts. I would repeat to myself over and over, “I’m ready. I’m prepared. I’m strong. I’m capable. I’m a champion.” (I like to call them my Muhammad Ali mantras.) These mantras helped me visualize the future, to see myself scoring points and winning. I learned to use my mind to shape my reality.

Self-care is important. It is not a sign of weakness to seek help when you need it.

On self-care...

Self-care is important. It is not a sign of weakness to seek help when you need it. In fact, it’s brave. I turned damaging thoughts into thoughts of success and positive mantras. It’s truly amazing what the mind can do when directed in the right way. I hope readers are reminded that we all face obstacles and challenges—and that anything is possible with hard work and a dream.

This interview has been edited and condensed from multiple sources (1, 2, 3).