MAPLEWOOD, NJ - Hundreds gathered in various locations around Maplewood on Sat., Sept. 10, to honor Maplewood native and Columbia High School graduate Ibtihaj Muhammad and celebrate her bronze medal win as a member of the USA Women's Saber Team at the Rio Olympics in August. The event was a testament to the support of the local community for their hometown Olympian, as well as proof that anyone can be a champion, regardless of race or religion.
Muhammad was proud to proclaim her Islamic faith and African-American heritage both in the Olympics, where she was the first member of the USA Olympic team to compete while wearing a hijab, and when speaking to the crowd in her hometown of Maplewood on Saturday. During her speech in front of the Maplewood Public Library Muhammad shouted, “This medal isn’t for me… this is for all of us. For all of the children who have been told they don’t belong.”
While the idea of prejudice was frequently discussed, those who gathered to see Muhammad on September 10th exclaimed pride and admiration. American flags waved in almost every hand, and a parade of cheering fans followed her throughout the entire day.
“Even when I was told that I didn't belong or that I shouldn't fence because I was a girl, or because I was black, or because I was Muslim — I want everyone here to know that I've never felt that here at home," she said.
Muhammad went on to say that she’s honored to be an example to local Muslim-Americans, African-Americans, and aspiring fencers.
Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca took the stage after Muhammad's speech to declare September 10th an official community holiday in her honor. Several gifts were presented by local organizations, her alma mater Columbia High School, and local parents.
Elizabeth Aaron, principal of Colombia High School, offered a frame of the photos and a profile story about Ibtihaj Mohammad that appeared in The New York Times. Two identical copies of the ornate frame were made, one for Muhammad and the other to be displayed at Colombia High School (featuring a personally autographed message).
A group of community parents also presented Muhammad with a large framed poster featuring photos of lawn signs, t-shirts, and SOMA families proudly supporting Muhammad while she was competing as a member of the USA Fencing Team in the Rio Olympics.
After the speeches and gifts, the 200-plus attendees paraded down Maplewood Ave. to the sound of cheers and applause. Muhammad smiled and wore her medal as she marched down the street with both strangers and friends. A police escort leading the parade came to a stop at the Burgdorff Center for Performing Arts for a short autograph session.
Parents and kids flooded into the building rushing to meet the Olympian, and the line wrapped around the room several times before continuing out the door and down the street. Not every person in line was able to get an autograph, but even those who were turned away stayed to cheer and wave flags as Ibtihaj Mohammad departed.