When U.S. fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad dons her oval fencing mask over her hijab at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she’ll represent her country and make a point.
“I remember moments where there were people who told me I didn’t belong in my sport because I was black, or I didn’t belong because I was Muslim,” she said.
In saber fencing, opponents face off with blunted blades, looking to land blows from the opponent’s waist up. Of the three weapons of fencing, “Saber is your fastest,” 30-year-old Muhammad said. “It’s the closest you would see to ‘Zorro,'” referring to the fictional masked hero who fought injustice wielding a sword.
Born in Maplewood, New Jersey, Muhammad has always challenged people’s perceptions.
In secondary school, she joined the gym of Peter Westbrook, a six-time Olympian who started a foundation to teach inner-city kids in New York City. “When I went to the Foundation, I saw not just people who look like me, but I also saw that there were Olympians in the room,” she said.
Training with coaches at the Peter Westbrook Foundation gave her confidence. Muhammad established herself as one of the top fencers at the university level, but when she considered the U.S. Olympic women’s saber team, she saw a lack of diversity. Muhammad turned this into motivation. “I’m like, ‘You know what? I want to go out for this team because I want to change this team.”
In 2012, a torn hand ligament kept her from qualifying for the London Olympics. But this year, a medal in the International Fencing Federation’s World Cup in Athens assured her a ticket to Rio, where she will be the first U.S. athlete to compete in hijab.
On the advice of her mother, Muhammad took up fencing when she was 13. The sport allowed her to participate without modifying her uniform, which had always made her feel a little self-conscious playing other sports.
Practice during Ramadan be like.. pic.twitter.com/N4KVuz9A1G
— Ibtihaj Muhammad (@IbtihajMuhammad) June 11, 2016
Even after the disappointment in 2012, Muhammad said she kept things in perspective. “My faith is such a large part of who I am, and it’s helped keep me grounded.”
She has some high-profile fans. President Obama recognized her during a visit to a mosque in Baltimore and asked her to “bring home the gold.” No pressure!
First lady Michelle Obama became Muhammad’s fencing student for an afternoon during a visit to New York this April.
Anything is possible with hard work and perseverance #MotivationMonday pic.twitter.com/H1Y1HwKtUb
— Ibtihaj Muhammad (@IbtihajMuhammad) May 23, 2016
Around the world, more Muslim women are competing at the Olympics. Fatima Adwan of the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy in Abu Dhabi, said the trend is here to stay. “We want to say that you don’t need to go against your culture to participate in sports,” she said.
Now, Ibtihaj Muhammad teaches at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, hoping to give kids the same sense of belonging she felt her first day in the fencing gym.
“I would tell youth around the world to not allow other people’s misconceptions about your race, your gender, your ethnicity to define them and to dictate their path in life. They can do whatever it is that they set their mind to.”
You can follow Ibtihaj Muhammad on Twitter at @IbtihajMuhammad, and fencing action at the Olympics from August 6 to 14.