Sofie Paternite, Sports Co-Editor
It’s no secret that Columbia High School (CHS) is a powerhouse of talented athletes. Dating back multiple decades, many CHS athlete alumni have prospered in their careers and been role models to current students. This is especially true in CHS’s fencing program, where alumna Ibtihaj Muhammad worked her way to becoming an olympian, and Zander Rhodes, ‘21, is doing the same.
Both Muhammad and Rhodes have demonstrated their perseverance through troubling times as they stay motivated for success.
Rhodes’s most recent struggle with her career was with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, explaining that she “was about to leave for [her] last Olympic Qualifier when it was announced that we would all be going into quarantine… the rest of [her] World Cups were cancelled and the Olympics [were] postponed by a year… so [she] adjusted [her] training so that [she] could do it at home.”
Friends of Rhodes explained how they admire her determination to be a champion. “She is extremely disciplined and dedicated to everything she does, and always completes everything as best as she can,” Sophia Motiwalla, ‘21, explained. “She is not afraid of working extremely hard because she knows all of the good that can come out of it.”
Rhodes described how her path to success took after Muhammad’s. “She has shown me that with hard work and perseverance, anyone can accomplish anything, no matter your circumstances.”
A CHS graduate of ‘03, Muhammad was the first female Muslim athlete to earn an Olympic medal. Additionally, she won three All-America Honors at Duke University, where she studied international relations and Arabic. Rhodes will be attending Columbia University this Fall, as she seeks an education alongside her training, much like Muhammad. Sarah Kingsley, ‘21, said, “Before COVID-19, she would travel almost every week, but she continued to study while fencing every day competitively.” Kingsley added, “She would somehow know more than someone who had been sitting in class for a whole week.” Rhodes credited her success educationally to her teachers, who, she said, “have always been very supportive of my fencing… they would give me the work and notes in advance so that I [didn’t] fall behind, and have also always been very flexible giving makeup work and tests.”
Although Rhodes and Muhammad are exceptional students and athletes, both commented on their setbacks in fencing, which Muhammad explained to be challenging at times with discriminatory behavior against her.
Muhammad was the first Olympian to wear a hijab during her match while representing Team USA. According to Duke Magazine, she felt comfortable fencing as she was able to adhere to her religious values and wear a modest uniform. She also mentioned how “[she] wants [Muslim Youth] to know that nothing should ever hinder them from achieving their goals—not race, religion or gender.”
In contrast, Rhodes said she got involved with fencing because her “cousin enjoyed it a lot and convinced [her] to continue doing it with him.” She explained her career to be more encouraged by parents as an extracurricular activity with peers at school and close family, and never identified with the conservative uniform like Muhammad.
Muhammad’s action was not one accepted by everyone. In an interview with the New York Times, Muhammad explained how she had received “quite a few [death threats],” even before she had competed in the Olympics. Additionally, she mentioned how her mistreatment by teammates and coaches affected her mental health. They said to her, “‘You’re different. Let’s ask weird questions about hijab and prayers… Do you use a magic carpet to pray?’” Muhammad highlighted how these ignorant microaggressions proved to be incentives to better herself.
Rhodes has not experienced the same level of discrimination in her fencing career so far. “In the U.S., a large part of the fencing community is Asian.” She added, “There are and have been a few other Filipino’s on the National Team with me, [so] I haven’t really experienced any racial, ethnic or gender discrimination in fencing.”
Though Rhodes and Muhammad have had different experiences in their fencing careers, it is without a doubt that they have and will leave their mark on CHS. Both athletes demonstrate grit and determination, and the community is excited to see more of them in the future.
Designed by: Jack Kalsched