By Laura Amato
By the time Dalilah Muhammad and Deajah Stevens walked off the stage in the Cardozo High School auditorium, their cheeks actually hurt.
The former Judges stars returned to their alma mater Tuesday for a ceremony to honor their respective accomplishments in this year’s Olympic Games and after a seemingly never-ending string of selfies and autographs and congratulations, the pair were a bit overwhelmed.
It was a good problem to have.
“It’s amazing. I’m happy to be home,” said Dalilah Muhammad, who won gold in the 400-meter hurdles in Rio. “It does get a little tiring, but being here I’m full of energy and I’m happy to be doing it. I wanted the photos, too, so it’s really, really nice.”
The track and field stars didn’t attend Cardozo together—Muhammad graduated in 2008, while Stevens graduated in 2013—but the pair have gone through this Olympic journey together and the ceremony at the school was the latest stop in a jam-packed schedule that’s criss-crossed the country.
At the end of it all, however, coming back to Cardozo was something special.
“Graduating from this school was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” said Stevens, who placed seventh in the 200-meter final in Rio. “It’s amazing to see everyone be so supportive because when I was here, they were so supportive of me.”
Stevens and Muhammad both faced their fair share of obstacles on the road to Olympic glory, but the two found support at Cardozo.
Stevens traveled nearly two hours from Westchester County to be part of the Judges’ track and field squad, certain that competing for Cardozo would lead to success. Muhammad, meanwhile, trained with Cardozo coaches Gail Emmanuel and Ray James prior to the start of the Olympic trials, looking to rediscover her on-track spark after a season plagued by injury.
“I think for me, it wasn’t about doing something that was different, it was going back to something that I used to do,” Muhammad said. “I went back to my distance background at Cardozo and went back to grinding. You just think, if I can do this, I can do anything else.”
The pair received accolades in the two hours they spent on stage during the ceremony—honored by area politicians, community groups and the school itself. In fact, the two became the first-ever recipients of the keys to Cardozo. In the end, however, it was the smiles on the faces of the students, the requests for selfies and a few words of encouragement that meant the most to Muhammad and Stevens.
“It’s nice being able to see the members of the track team now,” Muhammad said. “I was them once so to be here and be an inspiration to them, it’s a honor to me.”
Having two Olympic athletes coming from one high school would impress plenty of people, but the Judges weren’t surprised, certain of both Muhammad and Stevens’ undeniable talent from the get-go.
“We know what we have and we know what our goals our,” Emmanuel said. “It’s just part of the journey and the foundation we have set here.”
Muhammad and Stevens are anxious for a just a bit of time off—and maybe some more sleep—before heading back to the track, but the two are also excited about the next step. They know they’ve got a rock-solid support system in Queens and, maybe, four years from now, the two will be back for another ceremony.
“It’s all incredibly exciting,” Stevens said. “I’m just looking forward to the future.”