He’s overwhelmed with pride at his daughter’s achievement, but after the games, he’d like the fencing star to retire from elite sport, find a nice Muslim husband, and have some kids.
Eugene Muhammad, a retired police officer from New Jersey, admitted to The Daily Beast that he had originally feared that fencing might not be compatible with the family’s Muslim faith during his daughter’s first class. He had a problem with the way her male teacher was touching Ibtihaj—but he was soon won over by her dedication—and the huge trophies that started showing up in their suburban home.
Muhammad won her very first Olympic contest on Monday before being knocked out in the round of the last 16. She will return to action in the team sabre event on Saturday.
Around a dozen members of her family made the trip down to Brazil from Maplewood, New Jersey. They were hanging off the railings, urging her on during two fiercely contested rounds that entered Muhammad into the history books.
As the first Team USA athlete to wear a hijab at the Olympics, Muhammad has become a figurehead. After making the team, she was invited to meet the Obamas, came second in a team-wide vote to carry the U.S. flag at the Opening Ceremony, and called out Donald Trump during a major TV interview.
“CNN took over the house for like six hours, they was all outside. The neighbors were looking in thinking, ‘The cops done raided my house.’ It was funny, man,” said Eugene Muhammad.
He said he was proud of her big television performance, but he gets worried when she’s so outspoken.
“I tell her, I tell all my girls all the time, ‘Don’t argue with a man.’ And I think that’s good advice from any father to her daughter,” said Muhammad, 64. “A lot of time when you out-talk somebody or you embarrass them and they don’t know how to verbally deal with you, the next thing they do is get physical with you. To avoid all that you don’t gotta argue with people.”
And yet there she is on television attacking Trump’s “dangerous words” and their impact on the Muslim-American community.
“Yeah, I tried to tell her: ‘Don’t.’ I said the media is tricky, and they try to cause a controversial thing because that’s what sells papers,” said Muhammad.
Of course, it was his daughter’s determination and willingness to ruffle feathers that allowed her to make it in a sport with so few African-American or Muslim-American competitors.
“She had quite a few people who told her this ain’t the kinda sport for you,” he said. “Sometimes when they talked ignorance, she would ignore them, but she had a lot people try to discourage her… She’s quiet and determined, she really is, but if you push the right button she’ll let loose—she’ll let loose on them.”
On a few occasions Monday, she let loose on the judge. She received a yellow card after loudly disputing one call and throwing her mask to the ground in frustration.
After a promising start and a 6-2 lead against the French fencer Cecilia Berder, she let it slip—and eventually ended up lying on her back after falling off the strip and conceding the match-winning point.
“In a sport like fencing, you’re your own biggest opponent,” Ibtihaj Muhammad said after the defeat. “If you can control yourself and execute the actions you want in a way you want, you’ll be successful. I failed to do that today.”
Muhammad, who raced from the arena with tears in her eyes, spent a full hour composing herself and deconstructing the match with her sister before emerging to speak to the press.
Despite her loss, she said she had been overwhelmed by the achievement of making the Olympics and walking out into the Opening Ceremony representing the United States.
“You’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I did it, I did the unthinkable,’” she said. “A lot of people believe that Muslim women don’t have voices or participate in sports. And it’s not just to challenge the misconceptions outside the Muslim community, but also within the Muslim community.”
Her father recalled his own worries when he saw his daughter being taught to fence for the first time.
“I took her to her first practice—and you know in our religion the males don’t touch females and the females don’t touch males. So I had a problem with how [the coach] was maneuvering her and touching her, but you know it all worked out,” he said. “He was just showing her the moves, there was nothing sadistic about what he was doing, he was just showing her the different moves she has to do.
“She told me she liked the sport and she started developing, started getting better, I start seeing all these big trophies in the house, and I was, ‘Boom!’”