Ibtihaj Muhammad’s parents wanted their daughter to participate in sports, but it was a challenge.
They wanted to find something that wouldn’t hinder her from participating because of her Islamic faith.
Muhammad wears a hijab, a veil or headscarf worn by some Muslim women to cover the hair and neck. What sport could she do while still fully covered and without having to alter the uniform?
One day, Muhammad’s mom found an answer.
“My mom just so happened to discover fencing,” Muhammad told CNN. “She was driving past a local high school and saw kids with what she thought was like a helmet and like long pants and long jacket. She was like, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I want you to try it.'”
Muhammad started épée fencing the following fall, when she was 13. She switched to sabre fencing at age 16. Fast forward to now, and the 30-year-old from Maplewood, New Jersey, will represent Team USA in sabre in the Rio Olympics. She clinched a spot on the U.S. team when she won bronze at the Fencing World Cup in Athens, Greece, earlier this year.
With that comes history: She’s the first woman on Team USA to compete while wearing a hijab. That’s also motivation.
“When I heard that there had never been a Muslim woman on the U.S. team to wear the hijab, that is when I made this conscious decision to go for 2016,” Muhammad told CNNMoney. “I knew that I had it in me to qualify for the Olympic team, and I wanted to hopefully be that change, that other minorities could see that with hard work and perseverance, anything is possible.”
Muhammad says she is comfortable in her own skin, but it’s not always easy being different. However, in a fencing uniform, where an athlete is covered from head to toe, there’s no sign of race or religion.
“I saw that my skin color, my religion, made other people uncomfortable,” Muhammad said. “I always looked different from my teammates and had a really hard time with that. Once I discovered fencing and I looked like my teammates, I really was afforded the opportunity to not just look like my teammates but also have that sense of camaraderie and uniformity that a uniform allows.”
Muhammad was ranked as high as No. 7 in the world during the 2015-2016 season. She has won individual and team medals on the World Cup circuit, including team bronze at the Senior World Championships in 2015 and team gold in 2014. She also was a three-time NCAA All-American when she competed at Duke.
A torn ligament in her hand kept Muhammad from trying to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
“It means a lot to me to be able to represent the United States and be an ambassador not just to the sport but also to our country and show the diversity,” Muhammad said. “One of the special things that I hold near and dear to my heart at being an American is how diverse our community and our society is.”
Muhammad, who graduated with a dual major in international relations and African studies and a minor in Arabic, has embraced her role as an ambassador. She serves in the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport Initiative and has had speaking engagements on sports and education. She also won’t shy away from race, politics and religion.
Through it all, her message is clear: Believe you can do anything.
“I remember as a kid, people telling me as a kid that black people didn’t fence,” Muhammad said. “I remember people telling me that Muslims didn’t fence. Without that belief and that drive in having strong athletes like Muhammad Ali or like Serena (Williams) and Venus (Williams), without having strong people to look up to when I was a kid and to really face adversity head on, I wouldn’t be where I am today, so I’m really appreciative of that.”