Young African-American Olympians from Muslim families of the Tristate area, have returned home after historic, medal-winning performances in this year’s international Olympic games. Three women and one man earned a bronze, two silver and a gold medal, respectively, for their demonstrations of excellence in fencing, boxing and the women’s hurdles.
Dalilah Muhammad, 26, made history as the first woman from the United States to win Olympic gold in the Women’s 400-meter hurdles. Muhammad was born in Jamaica, Queens, and is the daughter of Nadirah and Imam Askia Muhammad. Imam Muhammad is a long-term Muslim chaplain for the New York City Department of Corrections. He delivered an opening invocation at the inaugural ceremony of Mayor Bill de Blasio .
Muhammad is a graduate of Benjamin N. Cardozo High School, where she began competing in various track and field events, including the hurdles, sprints and the high jump. She excelled at the hurdles and rose to the level of international competition, winning gold in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2007 World Youth Championships. That same year, Muhammad was named Gatorade Female Athlete of the year. In 2008 she won both the New York State and Nike Outdoor Nationals competitions.
The outstanding athlete excelled throughout college (she’s a business major graduate at the University of Southern California) and beyond, winning various titles, including four NCAA championships and the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 2013, 2014 and 2015. This year in the Olympic finals, she took no prisoners, powering out of the blocks in an all-out effort. Muhammad led the field the entire race and finished in a blistering 53.13 seconds.
The personal narrative of Nia Ali is one of triumph over tragedy. She is the daughter of the late Aleem Ali and Melita Johnson. She was born in Norristown, Pa., grew up in Germantown, and spent her senior year of high school in Pleasantville, N.J. Ali began running track at the age of 6, continued through high school and, like Dalilah Muhammad, went on to the University of Southern California. She continually excelled, winning the 60-meter hurdles at the 2006 Nike Indoor National Championships.
When the 28-year-old athlete was 11 years old, her parents divorced, but as she grew older she remained close to her father. He actively encouraged both her athletic and academic pursuits. However, as the years went by Aleem Ali began to experience personal problems that eventually overwhelmed him, and at one point the father and daughter lost contact. In 2009, he killed both his then wife and himself, in a murder-suicide that reportedly shocked the city of Philadelphia.
On learning what happened, Ali was thrown into depression and withdrawal. She stopped running and competing throughout 2010, but her teacher and coach, Dr. Tommie White (himself a former world-class hurdler as well as a licensed psychologist), taught her that life itself is like a hurdle race and that one must take each challenge at a time, and overcome.
In 2011, Ali resumed competition, cementing her comeback by becoming a NCAA champion in the 100-meter hurdles. She further demonstrated her overall versatility as a gifted athlete by becoming an All-American heptathlon champion as well. That same year she went on to win gold in the World University Games in Shenzhen, China. After varying degrees of success, she finally won gold again in the 2014 World Indoor Championships. Now, after taking 2015 off to have a son, she has won silver in Rio in a thrilling race during which American female hurdlers swept all three positions—the first time that has ever been done in any event in Olympic history. Afterward, the personally and professionally victorious champion took a victory lap with her 15-month-old son, Titus Maximus, as the toddler beamed with delight running on the track. His dad is 2012 400-meter silver medalist Michael Tinsley, but it was mother and son who were center stage in Rio.
Shakur Stevenson, 19, is a native of Newark, N.J. He is the son of Shahid and Malikah Stevenson and the eldest of nine siblings. His grandfather, Wali Moses, began teaching him how to box when he was only 5 years old. Locally, nationally and internationally, he has had a sterling career thus far. At the junior and youth level in 2014, he won both the AIBA Youth World Championships and Youth Olympic Games. In 2015, he won the Senior Olympic trials, and thus qualified for this year’s 2016 Summer Olympic U.S. boxing team. His record in international competition going into the Olympic Games was 26-0.
Last Saturday, Stevenson battled Cuba’s 2012 Olympic gold flyweight champion, Robeisy Ramirez Carrazana, 23, in a close and competitive bout. Using his considerable experience, Ramirez out punched Stevenson, averaging 89 blows per round to the 56 thrown by his opponent. The result was a victory and career second gold medal for Ramirez, handing Stevenson his first loss ever in a razor-thin split decision.
Afterward, the Newark-born fighter stole hearts by praising his older competitor’s performance, offering no excuses for his own effort, and then expressing the agony of defeat by weeping openly. “I hate to lose,” he admitted.
Stevenson has always flashed a beaming smile in victory. However, as he stood on the podium to receive his silver medal, the just-turned 19-year-old couldn’t hide his disappointment, which was evident in his facial expression. He cites super-middleweight and light-heavyweight champion, Andre Ward and multi-weight division champion, Floyd Mayweather Jr., as his inspirations, and he is looking forward to a professional career as a fighter.
Ibtihaj Muhammad, a 31-year-old Olympic saber fencer of Maplewood, N.J. has made history in more ways than one. She is the first Muslim-American woman athlete to compete internationally in a hijaab, the distinctive head-covering scarf (also called a khimaar) worn by women of the Islamic faith throughout the world.
She is the daughter of Eugene Muhammad (a retired Newark. N.J. policeman), and his wife Denise (a retired elementary school special education teacher). Muhammad has four siblings, and she graduated from both Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J. and North Carolina’s Duke University (where she earned dual bachelor’s degrees in international studies and African and African-American studies).
As an early adolescent, Muhammad sought a sport in which she could compete dressed in a manner compatible with her faith. Supported by her parents, she chose fencing and began taking lessons at age 13. By age 17, she was studying at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, named after another African-American U.S. champion and Olympic medalist saber fencer.
Muhammad went on to become a three-time All-American and 2005 Junior Olympic Champion. She became a member of the United States National Fencing Team in 2010, and entered the Olympics this year ranked No. 2 in the United States, and eighth in the world. She is a five-time Senior World medalist, including 2014 World Champion in the team event. Although she lost her individual match in the second round in Rio to Cecilia Birder of France, the Muslim African-American went on to compete fiercely in the team competition, making her own significant contribution to the U.S. third-place victory by winning seven of her nine matches, with one draw.
These three outstanding African-American Olympic athletes on a team containing many, have caused the chests of Black American Muslims to swell with pride, and social media are still buzzing with shout-outs of love and admiration for them. On their Facebook page, The Muslim Alliance in North America posted, “We are proud of you all and may Allah bless you and your families.”
Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid is the religious and spiritual leader of The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (Harlem, NYC), Ameer Emeritus of The Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York, and the vice president of The Muslim Alliance in North America