When sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad steps under the lights on the fencing strip, her competitive instincts kick in.
She focuses only on her opponent and the weapon in her hand, momentarily forgetting the challenges she overcame as a Muslim athlete and the discrimination she faces based on her beliefs and skin color.
Ranked second in the USA and No. 8 in the world by the International Fencing Federation, the 31-year-old medal contender will carry that tunnel vision to Rio de Janeiro this summer as the first American to compete for Team USA at the Olympics while wearing a hijab.
“I’m very competitive, and this is the space where I felt most comfortable,” said Muhammad, an African American who embraced fencing because she could respect her religion by remaining fully covered in uniform without looking different from teammates or competitors. “I wasn’t going to allow other people’s misconceptions to change my journey.”
In April, Muhammad was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people. She was surprised to be recognized for having a global impact.
Though she welcomes the opportunity to be a role model for female athletes — particularly encouraging Muslim girls to participate in sports — the Maplewood, N.J., native said she struggles to remain outspoken against bigotry and hate. But feeling a responsibility to help her community fuels her fight.
Training in New York City, Muhammad — who started fencing at age 13 — mentors kids on Saturdays at the Peter Westbrook Foundation. She also advocates for tolerance on social media and recently has been documenting the challenges of preparing for the Olympics during Ramadan.
Because Ramadan is “such a spiritual moment,” Muhammad said she fasts from sunrise to sunset but works with a nutritionist to help her get enough water and nutrients early to sustain her throughout the day. However, she said she has always trained while observing the holy month.
After graduating in 2007 from Duke, the three-time NCAA All-American said she noticed the U.S. women’s sabre squad lacked diversity and became determined to change that.
She qualified for the national team in 2010 — making her the first Muslim woman to fence for the USA — and enters the Olympics as a five-time senior world team medalist.
“You really get a very deep look into someone’s personality when you see them compete in their sport,” Olympic-qualified épée fencer Jason Pryor said. “Once you see Ibti compete, you’re going to say, ‘Oh, this is who she is deep down in her core. Fight or flight, this woman’s going to fight.’ It’s just how she fences. Her aggression and her ability to come back and how hard she’s driving in to get that touch, it suits her.”
In January, Muhammad finished third in the Athens World Cup, which helped her secure enough points for a place on the Olympic team. The U.S. women’s sabre team also qualified for Rio, so she will compete individually and in the team event.
During the qualification period — April 2015 to April 2016 — she said she worried about having trouble traveling internationally, often hearing of Muslims being profiled and kicked off flights. Although it hasn’t been a problem for her, she said it’s still a concern.
Frustrated by negative portrayals of Muslims, she hopes her success will offer a different image. She wants to go beyond the burqa stereotype and popularize the idea of Muslim athletes by capitalizing on her Olympic platform with Team USA.
“She’s doing something special,” Rio-bound wrestler Adeline Gray said. “She’s breaking ground, and she’s inspiring that next generation of girls that never would have considered sports. That’s what (we) want to reach out to all young girls — not just Muslim women but also young girls that are in all religions and across social and economic levels.”