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It wasn’t a lifelong desire to compete on the world stage, or even to represent her country, but only her surprise when she learned that no woman had ever competed in her sport wearing a hijab that prompted a 30-year-old fencer to dedicate herself to go to the Olympic Games in Rio this summer.

Ibtihaj Muhammad said, “that is when I made the conscious decision to go for 2016. I wanted to be that change that other minorities could see that with hard work and perseverance, anything is possible.”

The minority status she refers to is not being an African-American, but rather being a Muslim in America, as the barrier she wants to break down is the wearing of a hijab, the traditional scarf worn by many Muslim women over their head, neck, and upper chest in deference to dress codes for women ostensibly for purposes of modesty.

Muhammad grew up in New Jersey and took up fencing at the age of 13 when her parents approved of a sport she could compete in while maintain observance of her Muslim faith by being “covered.”

In fact, fencing is a sport where every inch of the body is covered to protect against even an inadvertent scratch from a blunted weapon.

She trained in New York City as a part of the Westbrook Foundation's Elite Athlete Program that identifies sports with “underserved populations,” introducing and encouraging them to the sport. Her mother, Denise Muhammad, said “It’s a very white sport.”

The 30-year-old attended Duke University, earning dual degrees in international relations and African and African-American studies, taking classes in Moroccan culture and intensive Arabic at the School for International Training in Rabat, Morocco ten years ago.

She was a three-time NCAA All-American (2004, 2005, 2006), but had not medalled in the sport after that until she set her sights on becoming the first woman to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab.



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