HomeArticlesRio OlympicsU.S. Muslim athlete aims to make Olympic history

U.S. Muslim athlete aims to make Olympic history

The Rio Olympics kick off Friday night, but one athlete from team USA is making history before the games begin.

After two decades of fitness training, sparring and lots of lunging, 2016 is the year for fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. For the 30-year-old, identity is important – she’s an African American and a Muslim woman. And after failing to make the 2012 Olympic team, she’s back with a clear objective that goes beyond her desire to win gold.

The self-described Jersey girl and three-time All-American at Duke University is going to her first Olympic Games.

She will experience another first in Rio by becoming the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab.

“It’s rewarding you know, to feel really powerful,”Muhammad said. “I still don’t believe that I’m going to the Olympics this summer. It’s still this surreal kind of moment in my life.”

“I just feel very blessed to… have qualified for the team, and it’s just — I’m so excited,” Muhammad said. “And I’m like, ‘When is this excitement going to wear off?'”

She will experience another first in Rio by becoming the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab.

“I feel like my hijab is liberating. It is a part of who I am, and I believe that it allows people to see me for my voice and not necessarily how I look,” Muhammad said. “I hope that it’ll change a lot of the misconceptions that people have about Muslim women specifically.”

Muhammad chose fencing as a kid because unlike other sports, it allowed her to both honor her Muslim faith and blend in.

“It was the first time where I truly felt a part of the team,” Muhammad said. “It was the first time I was in uniform with everyone else and I didn’t have to adjust it in any way by, like adding length to the sleeves or wearing pants when everyone else had on shorts.”

Muhammad’s high school coach, Frank Mustilli, who began working with her in his garage, knew she had the aggressive analytical approach to excel.

“I knew she would be a champion,” Mustilli said. “There’s not a whole lot of children that walk in here and have that look — to be able to look at through opponent and say, ‘you’re not even there, because you know what? I’m focused on that gold medal and you just happen to be between me and it.'”

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