Olympian, influencer, and inspiration for a Barbie doll, Ibtihaj Muhammad has overcome not only physical hurdles in sports, but mental and emotional ones too. The outspoken female fencer opens up about her battle with anxiety and depression for the first time in her new book, Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream, and revealed where it stemmed from in a Build Series interview Wednesday.
Muhammad competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics, and although she became the first Muslim American woman in a hijab to compete for Team USA at the Olympics and the first Muslim American woman to win a medal (she won bronze with the team), it wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine.
“I battled with depression for quite a long time,” she said in the interview. The Muslim African-American woman has spoken about feeling unaccepted in fencing because of its previous lack of diversity. But she’s only now revealing that the exclusion had severe mental and emotional ramifications. Today she said that the depression she suffered stemmed from “not really understanding how to navigate a space where I wasn’t welcome as a minority member of Team USA, but also … that pressure to perform, with that weight on my shoulders of not being accepted and feeling like I wasn’t being accepted, having to deal with … performance anxiety.”
This depression and ensuing anxiety, which she first started experiencing in 2014, could have had something to do with her losing at the women’s individual saber event in Rio de Janeiro and not winning an individual medal. “It was affecting how I competed, it was affecting my results,” she said of her mental state.
She described the physical effects of her performance anxiety in an interview with Glamour this week. “After years of hard work, I qualified for the United States National Team. It was a dream realized: I was representing my country at the highest level, traveling the world to compete,” she recalled. “As one of the top saber fencers in the world, I never doubted that I belonged among the best.” Unfortunately, that confidence wasn’t enough. “But in 2014, I started suffering from performance anxiety. At first, I had no idea what was happening. The morning of a competition I’d wake up feeling lethargic and sleepy — overwhelmingly so — despite having had a good night’s rest.” She recalled stepping onto the fencing strip at game time feeling “completely detached from reality.”
Luckily, she had an incredible support system to bring her back to reality. “My mom and my sister in particular got me through really tough moments as a member of Team USA, moments that I wasn’t sure I was gonna make it out of,” she said.
Having the awareness to ask for help and find a sports psychologist also played a major part in her subsequent success, which includes being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2016. “Mental health is so taboo; we don’t talk about it, I know for sure not in the black community, it’s the same in the Muslim community. And I think in general on a global level, especially here as Americans, we fail to effectively discuss and make people feel as though they can discuss mental health.”
She delved deeper into her depression while writing the book, which was very therapeutic for her. She told ESPNW, “I was able to be vulnerable and work through things.”
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