By Collin Bolebruch
One of athletes’ most important resources is their energy. The strength and stamina gained through nutrients, like a paper cup of gatorade or a pre-game banana, are essential to playing at one’s highest ability. During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, most adult Muslim participants fast from dawn until sunset, and there aren’t exceptions for athletes. For Plattsburgh’s Muslim athletes, observing their faith while playing the sport they love comes with a set of unique challenges.
Abigail Jarrett is from Richmond Hill, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens surrounded by Muslim friends and family. She now plays for the Plattsburgh Cardinals tennis team, fasting through spring practices and games. Islam is something she’s known her whole life, but after her first year and another Ramadan, she has a greater understanding of what her religion means to her.
In high school, Jarrett was used to having a greater presence of peers observing Ramadan. Now, she finds encouragement in the Muslim Student Association. She meets with the MSA after the sun goes down to break fast together, where she feels “kind of at home.” The MSA has become a home for many students, including Cardinals athletes.
“Our mission is to have everybody who is of the religion or wants to discover the religion to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of welcoming to an area where we’re not as represented as we should,” MSA President Saran Kaba said. “We’re all in a different journey of spirituality.”
Jarrett said her time at Plattsburgh has made fasting almost easier than it was at home. Missing meals for classes is something she’s used to, and the Sundowner in the Angell College Center offers food on campus after sunset. Practices sometimes go into the night, meaning she breaks fast later than she usually does, but her head coach, Kelci Henn, has been accommodating with necessary rest. Both practices and classes can interfere with Jarrett’s five daily prayers.
“Professors are really lenient, they’re really nice about it too,” Jarrett said. “I had to miss class for a prayer once. Because it was the first prayer of the month of Ramadan, it’s a really big deal. He was really supportive. He didn’t make me make up any work.”
Ramadan isn’t just about fasting — followers of Islam commit to the holy month for the ultimate goal of becoming more devout to the religion and Allah. Participants do more charitable deeds and refrain from sinful acts, consume tobacco or have sexual relations. Jarrett listens to clean artists like Taylor Swift, which is halal, or permissible in Islamic law, during Ramadan.
“To me, it means gaining a closer relationship to Allah and cleaning my deen [soul],” Jarrett wrote in a text.
Mussa Kone is from the Bronx in New York City, where he also grew up in a Muslim family. He started practicing Ramadan as a young teenager and found solidarity in his AAU basketball teammates, many of whom were Muslim.
Kone now competes for Plattsburgh’s outdoor track and field team, which is currently in-season. This factor creates the added challenge of competitively sprinting and jumping on an empty stomach. His diet changes during Ramadan, too. For suhur, the pre-sunrise meal, he eats more carbohydrates, protein and fruit — nutrients he tries to preserve for game time. Kone’s team has been there for him.
“When I was fasting this past weekend, my team knew, so when they had food, they would save it for me. That was pretty nice of them,” Kone said. “At night, when I had to eat, my roommates all understood I had to wake up and eat and they respect me praying.”
There’s no place like home. Though Kone has had assistance in his experience, it’s different from committing to Ramadan with his family. Kone’s cousin, Hassan Diarra, just won a national championship for the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball team while fasting.
“Here, it’s a little different, because at home, when I break my fast, I do it with family. It’s like a big thing. So here, I’m kind of alone in that sense,” Kone said. “Not really lonely, there’s obviously Muslims around here, but I’m not really as close to them.”
Kone says Ramadan is about becoming “a better Muslim and a better person.” His commitment to the challenges the month presents keeps him “connected to God” and “positive things.” Restricting himself makes him “mentally stronger.”
Kone referenced Cardinals basketball player Sheriff Conteh, who also practices Ramadan, as someone he can connect with. Conteh is also from the Bronx, but his family is originally from the Gambia, a western African country with a majority-Muslim population.
The restrictions Ramadan presents gives him “structure.” Conteh can’t load up on protein for a workout, sip a water bottle or have a snack to recoup after a pickup game. He gets the energy can before the sun comes up and has learned how to preserve it throughout the day.
“Ramadan helps you condition,” Conteh said. “All that training you’re doing, you’re conditioning your body to play through the fourth quarter.”
Conteh, echoing Jarrett and Kone, said Ramadan helps him become closer to Allah and a “better Muslim.” It gives him a chance to “recuperate” and “repent” for Allah’s forgiveness.
“It’s really all mental. At the end of the day, yeah, you’re going to be starving. If you feel like you’re going to fail, you’re not going to be able to fast,” Conteh said. “Once you have your mental right, fasting could be so easy.”