Hometown Hero: New Jersey Celebrates Historic Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad

Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad poses for a portrait (edited to add special effects) at the 2016 Team USA media summit March 9 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad poses for a portrait (edited to add special effects) at the 2016 Team USA media summit March 9 in Beverly Hills, Calif.Harry How / Getty Images

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By Melissa Noel

During her Olympic debut, world-class fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad made history twice in one week.

Not only did the 30-year-old New Jersey native become the first U.S. athlete to compete at the Olympics in a hijab, but on Saturday, with the last touch of her last team bout, she became the first American woman to win a medal at the Olympics while wearing the religious head scarf.

"I feel like this moment is bigger than I am. I've worked so hard the last six years — I've been on the United States national team for six years — and it's been such a hard journey," Muhammad told U.S.A Fencing.

Although there is nothing quite like seeing the action at the Olympic Games up close and personal, the spirit of the celebrations held in Muhammad's hometown, Maplewood, N.J., felt like an Olympics all its own.

"Our Jersey girl has a bronze!" Those were the only words that could be heard on the microphone amid the countless cheers at the New Jersey Fencing Alliance (NJFA) as the U.S. women's saber team defeated Italy, 42-30, in the finals and earned the bronze medal.

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The NJFA was packed with friends of the family, former coaches and other members of the community who were there to cheer Muhammad on from as early as 7:30 in the morning.

"We were so energized to see our girl Ibti on the world stage, and we sent those vibes straight to Rio," said Frank Mustilli, who started coaching Muhammad at age 13.

"It was her mother that wanted to get her into the sport, thank God," Mustilli told NBCBLK as he recalled that her family wanted get her involved in a sport in which she could be fully covered and adhere to the tenets of her faith.

He smiled as told the crowd, "This is our Ibti, the one who came back here after she graduated from Duke and said, 'Coach, do I still have it. Can I still fence?' Look at her now, an Olympian."

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For this small, tight-knit community, watching Muhammad compete with her teammates, Mariel Zagunis and Dagmara Wozniak, was the joyous culmination of months of support to get "Maplewood's Olympian" to Rio.

A banner celebrates hometown daughter Ibtihaj Muhammad in Maplewood, N.J.Melissa Noel

The viewing party at the NJFA was just one of the many events the township held to support one of their own.

"We came together as a community, and we organized events to show her and everyone how proud we are," said Victoria Mateen, who said she has known Muhammad and her family for close to 30 years.

"Everyone's so proud, but especially the youth, because they're going through those things now that she went through when she felt that she was so different and when people told her she couldn't achieve," Mateen said.

Community members like Mateen supported the GoFundMe campaign started by Muhammad's father, which raised money to get her and her family to Rio.

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Just days before competing, Muhammad, a five-time senior world team medalist, thanked her hometown for its unwavering encouragement.

"They've been so supportive from beginning until end," Muhammad said, according to a release from U.S.A. Fencing. "There's a huge banner hanging of me in my town right now just in support, so I feel the love all the way here in Brazil."

The Maplewood Department of Recreation & Cultural Affairs also teamed up with a local group to create lawn signs that can see throughout the town and in neighboring ones. The town also presented her with a proclamation and declared April 6, 2016, to be Ibtihaj Muhammad Day.

Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad poses for a portrait (edited to add special effects) at the 2016 Team USA media summit March 9 in Beverly Hills, Calif.Harry How / Getty Images

The fencing star has used her platform as an Olympian to challenge negative stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslim Americans.

"A lot of people don't believe that Muslim women have voices or that we participate in sports," Muhammad told USA Today.

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"And it's not just to challenge misconceptions outside the Muslim community, but within the Muslim community," she said. "I want to break cultural norms."

Longtime friend Sakinah Hofler said it was Muhammad's ability to balance fame and her faith that she admires most about her.

"She's the type of person who can go on the 'Ellen' show, Colbert — you do a bunch of talk shows — but then come to prayer and just be normal and then talk about eyeliner and clothes," Hofler said. "She's so down to earth and so humble. When I have children, I want them to look up to her as a role model."

"She's breaking barriers so little Muslim girls growing up will see her and say, 'Hey, I can do that.'"

Hofler said that as a Muslim woman, she feels that Muhammad's history making her Olympic debut will affect several generations, particularly women of that faith.

"There were times growing up that we were told, 'Oh, we can't play certain sports' or 'We can't do certain things because of our religion,'" Mateen said. "She's breaking barriers so little Muslim girls growing up will see her and say, 'Hey, I can do that.'"

The famed fencer, who also is a sports ambassador serving with the U.S. State Department's Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport Initiative, hopes to continue breaking barriers and show others that race, religion or gender don't have to be a hindrance to success.

After the historic team win, the crowd at the New Jersey Fencing Alliance started to disperse, but the people of Maplewood have already begun plans to welcome their Olympian home.

Muhammad's first coach smiled as he remembered that conversation they had all those years ago.

"Does she still have it?" Frank Mustilli asked. "To me, she has an unlimited future, and as far as I'm concerned and NJFA is concerned and New Jersey is concerned, she is golden."

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