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Muslim-American Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad shares her nail game and blacklists evil smoked salmon.
You don’t want to mess with badass Ibtihaj Muhammad unless you want to be #humbled by the first Muslim-American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the 2016 Summer Olympics (Bronze with Women’s Sabre Team!). Merk Nguyen and Nyge Turner talk to Ibtihaj about the need for her “modest” clothing line Louella and the bullsh*t she had to deal with while on the U.S. Olympic team. Be sure to also check out her memoir -- "Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream"
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Check out the full conversation on YR Media's Adult ISH podcast (episode 2) and at yradultish.com.
Merk: So I've been snooping on your Instagram and girl -- what's your nail game like today?
Ibtihaj: It's really cute, like milky nude color. I have a simple line on four of my nails -- three are vertical, one is horizontal and I totally regret doing the one horizontal.
Nyge: Fencing might not be the first thing that you think about when you think of the Olympics, so how did that become your sport of choice?
Ibtihaj: I discovered it at 12 [while] driving past a local high school with my mom. We saw fencing inside the school cafeteria from the road and my mom is like, "Don't know what it is, but they're fully covered." Women who wear a hijab cover everything with the exception of their face and their hands, so I wear long sleeves and wear pants and I also wear the headscarf. [Previously] in different sports I played, I was always stared at when I went to competitions. But fencing, it was totally different.
Merk: Real talk for a second. When I'm at the gym and if I'm like "I don't want to do this," I straight up think of you because I'm like, “Yo...Ibtihaj did it" and I imagine you grinding and sweating like the Gatorade commercials.
Ibtihaj: Stop it! That is amazing...I swear I've always been motivated by my competitors. I remember having night sweats -- I'd wake up in the middle of the night and think that like world number one has already gone for a run. So that kind of motivated me to kick it into another gear. So the fact that you in any way, shape, or form feel motivated by me...I love that.
Nyge: Personally, I'm a bit of a fashion guy. I've taken a few design classes in college, so when I heard that you had your own clothing line I was pretty shook! So, what's the story behind Louella?
Ibtihaj: When I was young, I had a really hard time finding modest stuff that was fashionable...If you wanted a long-sleeved dress, you had to buy the spaghetti strap, and a sweater or cardigan to go over it. Then you still had to find a hijab. As a sports ambassador for the U.S. State Department, I want to be modest in front of large audiences and I couldn't find that affordably. The premise of the company is for all of our items to be fashionable, affordable, and modest. We [also] work with female manufacturers who employ women.
Merk: In your book, there is someone in particular you talk about a lot. It's your younger sister Faizah...she's an amazing fencer like yourself and the connection you two have totally reminds me of me and my big sister, Kristy. So what about your sister helped you become who you are today?
Ibtihaj: I wonder if my tight relationship with my bestie sister, Faizah, makes my other siblings jealous...probably. But it was interesting to see my sister six years younger than me turn into like this mama tiger energy when people treated me poorly on the U.S. National Team -- intentional exclusion by my teammates, the coaching staff not booking flights, not telling me about team practices.
For me, having my sister with me helped me just navigate that space because I was tired of being sad. My parents think you can pray away sadness and that the answer to everything is prayer.
Merk: When it comes to looks I say you are FIERCE. So, if I want to rock that jumpsuit Nyge tells me is whack (Nyge: Lies!)...what should I do?
Ibtihaj: Wear it! And forget Nyge...I mean, look it's always great to have a friend who's like "Hey girl, maybe not that look," but if your friend is a hater, [get] new friends for sure and wear that jumpsuit if you feel good in it.
Merk: So the part in your book when the whole team gets poisoning...that evil salmon? Can you describe the meal?
Ibtihaj: We left a training camp in Poland in Warsaw for an Olympic qualifier in Athens. And if I see smoked salmon, you better believe I'm going to get a bunch of it. But when we got to Athens, I was so sick that I swear to God I thought I was going to die, like, on the floor. Believe it or not, I had to compete the next day like nothing had happened and that was my third Olympic qualifier where I won a medal. But to this day, I do not mess with smoked salmon.
Merk: All of that reminds me of what happened right before this...Nyge, I'm so sorry I gotta share...he was throwing up.
Nyge: OMG, nobody needs to know that information...
Ibtihaj: This is your Olympic game, Nygel! Don't be embarrassed, you sound amazing!
Nyge: My senior producer is dying laughing because I'm in here with a trash can and a huge bottle of water. But I'm pushing through. But Merk, you are out of pocket.
Merk: Ibtihaj, we're going to miss you because this interview is now over. [But] if you're ever coming back to New Jersey, I will legit go down to New Jersey and be like, “Yo girl. What's up?” We can get our nails done together!
Ibtihaj: I'm going to take you up on that because I'm flying up to New York tonight.
Merk: You going to slide into the DM's?
Ibtihaj: I'm trying to keep it kosher. That sounded not too kosher.