World Record Holder Dalilah Muhammad On The Cancelled Olympics, Racism In Sports And Practicing Islam
Dalilah Muhammad | Marco Mantovani/Getty

Earlier this year, gold medalist and world record holder Dalilah Muhammad had imagined that in mid August she’d be flying home from the Summer Olympics Games in Tokyo with another gold medal tucked into in her carry on. In 2016, Muhammad, who competes in the 400-meter hurdles, became the first American woman to ever win Olympic gold in the 400-meter hurdles. She was expected to win again in 2020.

Instead she was at home, much like the rest of the country, and reminiscing about enjoying brunches and fun shopping trips with friends. Since the news of the Summer Olympics being postponed until 2021, Muhammad‘s been staying connected to family via Zoom or FaceTime and saw a bright side to pandemic. “It’s been difficult, but I started looking at it as a way to strengthen my weak areas,” she said.

Like those storied legends Wilma Rudolph and Florence Griffith-Joyner who famously made track & field history before her, there’s more to the talented 30-year old beyond her athletic abilities. The Queens, New York native and Los Angeles transplant chatted with us about when she knew track was her calling, her thoughts on the Black Lives Matter Movement and why she lives for a good Sunday brunch with her girls.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – AUGUST 18: Dalilah Muhammad of the United States competes on her way to winning gold in the Women’s 400m Hurdles Final on Day 13 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 18, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

ESSENCE: How are you doing in light of COVID-19?DALILAH MUHAMMAD: Well, today I’m doing good. In the very beginning, I was, I guess, shocked.

ESSENCE: When did you find out that the 2020 Summer Olympics was cancelled?

MUHAMMAD: It was back in April that I believe I knew for sure. I think Instagram told me, to be honest. I was at practice when I read on a social media post that it would be postponed. Of course, our governing body, USATF [USA Track & Field], sent out an email letting everyone know formally that it would be postponed to next year.

ESSENCE: What was your immediate reaction?

MUHAMMAD: Sad. We put so much into what we do as athletes. This is probably my 9th or 10th season as a professional runner. The athlete part of you wants to keep going, wants to train, but then to do what we do takes so much mentally, and you’re always looking for something that continues to motivate you. That motivation has changed every year, but one thing that stays constant is knowing there’s a major competition I have to be ready for. It was difficult to keep training not knowing what would happen, or if there would even be a regular track season. And there really hasn’t been one this year. It’s been difficult, but I started looking at it as a way to strengthen my weak areas.

ESSENCE: That dedication explains your outstanding record: You brought home a gold medal from Rio in 2016 for the 400-meter hurdles, broke a world record last year for the 400-meter hurdle and have achieved countless other accolades in track & field. When did you realize this was your calling?

MUHAMMAD: There was a time when I used to dance as much as I ran track, and I loved dancing but when it came time to make a choice, because I could not do both, I knew that the right answer was track and field. When I made that decision I was in high school. I started to realize I can go far in this sport, and I had something else to give this sport. I needed to follow that drive and passion for running.

ESSENCE: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not preparing for a race?

MUHAMMAD: I train five to six days a week for about three hours each day. So, Sundays are lazy for me. I wake up early, have a cup of coffee, maybe a light breakfast, or I like to do brunch with friends. I might go out to walk. There are nice streets in [Los Angeles] where I like to shop. I usually cook dinner on Sundays. The rest of the day I just relax, watch a lot of Netflix, and get ready for Monday.

ESSENCE: Cute! Speaking of shopping, would you ever consider being a model? You have gorgeous skin, striking cheekbones, legs for days and were featured in a Nike campaign.

MUHAMMAD: [Chuckles.] Yes. I never give myself that title, but I am actually signed as a Ford model. It’s a recent thing, I just signed with them this year. When COVID hit it put a stop to everything. But they have some things lined up for me. I’m looking forward to it. This is a new chapter in life, and one I’m excited about.

ESSENCE: You’re also Muslim. What has been your experience practicing Islam as a professional athlete?

MUHAMMAD: As I’ve gotten older, I have begun to embrace my religion. There’s a stereotype associated with being a Muslim and I don’t fit that stereotype. I started wanting people to see that a Muslim doesn’t look like what the media portrays us to be and that we all look very different. I love I can represent that difference and change the idea of what a Muslim should look like.

ESSENCE: What is Dalilah Muhammad striving for beyond track and field?

MUHAMMAD: There’s this misconception that if you’re on top, everything must be great. That is not true. To be a Black athlete, and a Black woman athlete especially, you have to be twice as good. It never seems like it’s enough for us. Once I broke a record, I was getting all this recognition and that was great, but I had such a long history behind me that went unnoticed. And that’s the case for many young Black girls. With the Black Lives Matter movement right now, I’ve had an awakening. It’s been difficult for Black women, especially in track and field, and I’m trying to ease that route for the next person behind me. We all need to work harder today to make this route easier for the people behind us.

Bridgette Bartlett Royall (@blkbridalbliss) is an ESSENCE research editor and founder of BlackBridalBliss.com.

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