RIO DE JANEIRO — U.S. fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad came to the Rio Games determined to show the world that Muslim-American women can excel in sports.
Muhammad will return home to New Jersey with proof that she was right.
Muhammad, who became the first U.S. Olympian to wear a hijab during competition earlier this week, won a bronze medal Saturday along with her teammates in the women’s team sabre event.
The U.S. routed Italy 45-30 to clinch third place and the first women’s medal in fencing for the Americans in Rio.
“This is sport. It doesn’t matter what hair color you have, or what religion you are. The point is to go out there and be the best athlete you can be,” said U.S. teammate Dagmara Wozniak. “We’re the best explanation of what American is. A mix of so many different cultures and races, and everything all together.”
Muhammad made headlines around the world Monday simply by wearing a head scarf on the piste, adhering to the tenets of her Muslim faith.
The attention for the team event was much more focused simply on fencing — and Muhammad reminded folks why she made the Olympic team in the first place.
“This has been a long journey for us,” Muhammad said. “To be able to compete at the level that we’ve worked toward, on the world’s biggest stage, the Olympic Games, is truly a blessing for us. ... I’ll never forget this moment.”
The Americans opened against Poland, blowing an 11-point lead before two-time Olympic champion Mariel Zagunis got the U.S. through with a deft torso touch for the win.
Russia won the first four of the nine-bout semifinals to go ahead 20-12, but Muhammad slowed Russia’s momentum with a narrow victory over second-ranked Yana Egorian.
After Zagunis picked up another win, Muhammad had by far her best moment of the Olympics. Muhammad peppered Ekaterina Dyachenko with touch after touch, 10 in all, until the U.S. found itself with an improbable 35-34 edge.
“Our plan was that, no matter what happened, to just focus on these four voices,” said Muhammad said of teammates Zagunis, Wozniak and Monica Aksamit. “We were only listening to each other, and I just kept hearing ‘Just get one. Just get one.”’
But Sofia Velikaya pulled the Russians back in front with six straight points, a margin even Zagunis was unable to overcome.
Still, the U.S. team had yet to medal in a tournament all season.
The Americans seized their chance to do so in Rio.
The U.S. built a 25-15 lead after five matches, and Zagunis — who declined to speculate on her future in the immediate aftermath of her fourth straight Olympics — made that edge insurmountable.