— -- RIO DE JANEIRO -- Ibtihaj Muhammad came to the Olympics determined to show the world that Muslim-American women can excel in sports.
She will return home to New Jersey with proof that she was right.
Muhammad, who became the first U.S. Olympian to wear a hijab during competition earlier this week, won a bronze medal with her teammates on Saturday in the women's team sabre event. The U.S. routed Italy 45-30 to clinch third place and the first women's fencing medal for the Americans in Rio de Janeiro.
"This is sport. It doesn't matter what hair color you have or what religion you are. The point is to go out there and be the best athlete you can be,'' American teammate Dagmara Wozniak said. "We're the best explanation of what American is: a mix of so many different cultures and races and everything all together.''
Russia won its fourth fencing gold medal of the Rio Games in the final, beating Ukraine 45-30. Muhammad made headlines around the world Monday by wearing a head scarf on the piste to adhere to the tenets of her Muslim faith. The attention for the team event was focused simply on fencing, and Muhammad reminded folks why she made the Olympic team.
"This has been a long journey for us,'' Muhammad said. "To be able to compete at the level that we've worked toward, on the world's biggest stage, the Olympic Games, is truly a blessing for us. ... I'll never forget this moment.''
The Americans opened against Poland by blowing an 11-point lead before two-time Olympic champion Mariel Zagunis got the U.S. through with a deft torso touch for the win. Russia won the first four of the nine-bout semifinals to go ahead 20-12, but Muhammad slowed Russia's momentum with a narrow victory over second-ranked Yana Egorian.
After Zagunis picked up another win, Muhammad had by far her best moment of the Olympics. She peppered Ekaterina Dyachenko with touch after touch, 10 in all, until the U.S. found itself with an improbable 35-34 edge.
"Our plan was that, no matter what happened, to just focus on these four voices,'' Muhammad said of teammates Zagunis, Wozniak and Monica Aksamit. "We were only listening to each other, and I just kept hearing, 'Just get one. Just get one.'''
But Sofia Velikaya pulled the Russians back in front with six straight points, a margin not even Zagunis was able to overcome. Still, the U.S. team had yet to medal in a tournament all season. The Americans seized their chance to do so in Rio. The U.S. built a 25-15 lead after five matches, and Zagunis -- who declined to speculate on her future in the immediate aftermath of her fourth straight Olympics -- made that edge insurmountable.
Russia was just as dominant as Muhammad and the Americans in the finals. The top-ranked Russians won their first four bouts and seven of nine, and top-ranked fencer Sofya Velikaya went undefeated as they nabbed their seventh medal in fencing so far.
The Olympic fencing tournament concludes Sunday with the men's epee team event. France, which has a proud history in fencing, will be the favorites, and there will be a lot of pressure on the French to come through with the nation's only gold in a sport it used to dominate.