It was around this time two years ago that Black and Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka declined to do press during the 2021 French Open, a major tennis tournament, due to her struggles with mental health. After announcing her decision, she received backlash from media outlets and from Grand Slam organizers, who fined her and threatened her with expulsion, causing her to withdraw from the tournament altogether.
Since then, more conversations have arisen to bring awareness to and destigmatize mental health issues in the athletic world. Twenty-year-old Naimah Muhammad, a rising senior at Fisk University, has had her own fair share of mental health challenges she is actively working to overcome.
Naimah Muhammad is an english major with a concentration in creative writing and film studies. But on top of her studies to achieve her goal of becoming a scriptwriter, she is also a part of the first HBCU gymnastics team to compete in the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA).
Her journey begins at nine years old. Before she discovered gymnastics, she started ice skating. She quickly grew bored, however, due to her ice skating instructors failing to move her up and challenge her. She became interested in gymnastics after seeing Gabrielle Douglas win the Olympic gold medal in 2012. Her parents then took her to her club gym, where she started practicing. She eventually started moving through all of the levels—state, regional and national.
“I wasn’t really thinking about college gymnastics. I feel like every single gymnast, they always want to go Olympics or World Championship. So I was thinking about that type of timing, but I did start later than everyone else, so it would be really hard for me to get to that point,” Naimah told Joshua’s Truth.
“I did start thinking about college after I watched the Beyonce Coachella, because that was HBCU-based, and she had the bands and everything,” she added, referencing Beyonce’s 2018 Coachella performance, affectionately called “Beychella.”
“I wanted to go to school after that, but I realized they didn’t have any HBCUs with a gymnastic program. So I was like, okay, well, I can’t go to an HBCU because they don’t have gymnastics, so I’ll just go to a school out of state somewhere that might have a band.”
For her freshman year of college, she attended the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. But her college journey started out rough, with it being August 2020, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She ended up going back home and skipping the fall 2020 semester.
“I wasn’t feeling school anymore,” she said. “I hadn’t been training for about almost a full year at that point. I stopped training in gymnastics.”
Naimah eventually got in contact with one of her old gymnastic coaches, John Feeney, who was coaching at State University of New York Brockport. She had known him since she was 11, and he convinced her to attend the school and start competing.
“I joined the team spring 2021 semester, and then he retired in May. I started to get adjusted to it and I was happy, but he left. And that kind of made me feel worse because I was like, well, I don’t want to get a new coach. This is my coach since forever,” she expressed.
The school hired a new coach, and Naimah stayed for the fall semester and the following spring semester, competing with the team for a year. That is, until she and a friend and teammate were in the cafeteria one day in February 2022 talking about their dreams. She shared with her teammate her dreams to go to an HBCU.
“We were just eating, sitting in the caf and she was on Instagram and she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Naimah, look.’ and she showed me her phone, and we saw that Fisk University was starting the first HBCU gymnastics team. And then we freaked out because this is an HBCU gymnastics team, like we talked about, but we never heard of Fisk or anything. So then we start Googling and looking it up,” Naimah said.
But she was skeptical. At that time, Fisk had just announced it, and the team did not yet have a coach. It was also the middle of the gymnastics season. Despite her waiting it out, her friend was insistent that “this is the school you’re going to go to.”
By the time she finished her first collegiate nationals, coming in second place, the university had hired a coach: Corrinne Tarver, who was the first Black woman to win the NCAA All-Around Gymnastics Championships.
“I freaked out because okay, now they have a coach. Alright. So our season was over. We had finals. I went home for the summer and I went back to my gym to train,” Naimah said.
She continued to monitor Instagram and the news about Fisk, including the girls who were joining the team. Finally, she made her decision.
“I decided to commit to fisk, and I kind of shocked everyone with that decision because I kept it a secret just because I wanted to make sure I was doing it for myself and not because of what other people were telling me,” she said.
She spent her junior year of college at Fisk University. When she wasn’t in competition season, she spent her days waking up for back-to-back classes starting at 9am. Afterward, she would grab something from the caf and then workout in the gym for two or three hours. She would then either go to another class or return to her dorm. Sometimes she would hang out with friends. She would end her night with prayer. Her in-season schedule was different. She would skip a couple of classes due to practice and traveling. She would do her homework in hotel rooms, compete, then travel back to campus.
With Naimah’s schedule as both a student and an athlete, she had to learn—and is still learning—how to take care of herself properly.
“I’ve always just been like, when the going gets tough, you have to keep pushing,” she said. “Especially because COVID and everything, I had to learn how to motivate myself and how to stay positive and determined. So because of that, I’ve kind of developed semi-unhealthy habits, where I’ve tried to push myself for as long and hard as I can. And that’s good, motivated-wise. That’s good for athletics, but I also don’t always rest when I need to.”
She has had coaches that have expressed their love for her work ethic, but she has also had coaches tell her she needs to take a break. Her response would be, “No, no, I need to keep going. I need to keep going.”
An injury forced Naimah to slow down.
“That proved itself this season. I kept trying to push myself early in the season, because I wanted to make a good impression of HBCU gymnastics, and it worked out. It worked out. I did well. But it’s only at the beginning of the season that I hurt my ankles. And that was really tough because I was like, this is our second competition and I hurt my ankles already,” she said. “And I kind of did need that perseverance to push through for the rest of the year. But that also meant that if I was going to do that, my coaches really made it an emphasis for me to okay, rest, ice.”
Due to her injury, stretches and exercises replaced workouts such as running on the treadmill.
“I had to relax,” she shared. “Mentally, I feel like I’ve always been really strong-minded and strong-willed, but there are times where I need to be like, okay, relax and just sit with yourself for a second. Write down your thoughts. Read. Try not to think about school or gymnastics-related things. Just do things that keep you calm and at peace, and that’s what’s kind of hard to manage.”
“Because I want to always be on go, but I didn’t realize that when you are well-rested, then when it’s time to get back to what you’re doing, you are better than you were before because you’re giving your body a chance to heal from the previous things you’ve done before,” she added.
She admitted that while resting and healing is taking a little bit to get used to, she’s a lot better now. When the season ended, she took a month off of practice and would just do stretches and strength work.
“I wouldn’t tumble. I wouldn’t do any flips or anything for like a month and a half just to rest my body. And now I’m training again and it feels a lot better,” she said. “I think the most important thing is just letting your body heal itself.”
She enjoys watching ASMR, such as “wood soup,” where a woman on TikTok stirs wooden trinkets in the water.
“It’s really weird, but it’s really calming,” she said.
She also reads and watches anime in her relaxation time.
“And sleep,” she said. “I did not realize how much naps were beneficial. When you’re younger, you hate taking naps. You’re forced to take naps and you feel like you’re missing part of the day. But now, I love taking naps. As soon as I get back from class, I’ll take a nap and just wake up at 7 p.m. like oh okay, I feel better now. I could do homework now.”
Through it all, Naimah’s faith as a Muslim has kept her grounded.
She described gymnastics as a sport where everything is conditioned to be the same for everyone, including outfits and hairstyles. But due to her observance as a Muslim, she wears tights out of her desire to cover her legs.
“That’s what I believe in, and I don’t want to alter what I believe just to continue doing something else. I do love the sport, but if it meant I couldn’t do it the way that I’ve always done it and I want to do it, then I would have to stop. So since I don’t want to stop, I’m going to have to make the people in charge allow me to do what I want, so I can continue,” she said.
The tights weren’t a problem on the lower levels of gymnastics, but once she started competing at the national levels, she had to fight in order to be able to wear tights. She became the first person to wear tights at the collegiate level of competition. Due to her stance, USA Gymnastics updated their attire policy to allow tights to be worn.
“Having that mindset, I feel like, has made people look at gymnastics differently. Like okay, it doesn’t have to all be the same. We don’t all have to wear slick-back ponytails and buns and have the same leotards. You can have a unitard. You could have tights, you could have leggings, you could have shorts. You can have on what makes you feel comfortable, and it can still look cute. It can look pretty, and it doesn’t have to affect your gymnastics,” she said.
“Having that mindset and not wavering has helped other people feel more confident and have a mindset that they don’t have to waver, especially when it comes to athletes and advocating for mental health. You want your athletes to feel comfortable and to feel supported, and if they’re not feeling that, that’s going to affect their training more than what they’re wearing,” she said. “So having me as someone that can advocate and stand up for what I believe allows other people to do the same, to advocate for themselves and stand up for what they believe in.”
Her advice to other student athletes who might be struggling with mental or physical health challenges is to take a break.
“If you don’t allow your body and your mind to heal and to rest when it needs to, it’s going to be a lot harder to recover from injuries. It’s also going to be a lot harder for you to be motivated into working out. It’s going to be harder for you to enjoy what you’re doing,” she said. “There’s a way to enjoy what you’re doing and also take a break from what you’re doing at the same time, just so you have a chance to rebuild. If you’re constantly working out, that’s great, but if you don’t let your muscles and your body recover from it, you can actually hurt yourself even worse. So it’s always best to just take time for yourself when you can. And when you do that, it’s going to feel a lot better.”
Naimah is looking forward to her senior year of school, the next homecoming at Fisk, her senior project, which will include writing actual scripts, and the next competition season.
“And I’m almost done with my degree,” she said, with excitement.