Ibtihaj Muhammad stood beaming on the podium in Budapest in 2013, flashing a bright smile, a world championship bronze medal and the red, white and blue hijab that perfectly encapsulated who she is as an athlete and a person.
Muhammad, a New Jersey-born fencer, is a proud Muslim and an equally proud American. And this summer at the Rio Olympics, Muhammad will seek to stand up for her community by fighting for a country that hasn’t always fought for those who share her faith.
Muhammad, the middle daughter of a retired detective and special education teacher, will become the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab, the head scarf she wears in accordance with her beliefs.
Those circumstances have put the 30-year-old Muhammad on a platform well beyond sports.
She earned her Olympic spot in January and is hoping her presence can help counter the recent wave of anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S., triggered in part by Donald Trump’s comments about banning Muslims from the U.S.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed to be in this position, to be given this platform. When I think of my predecessors, and people who’ve spoken out against bigotry and hate, I feel like I owe it not just to myself but to my community to try to fight it,” said Muhammad, who is ranked seventh in the world in the women’s saber. “There are people who don’t feel safe going to work every day, that don’t feel safe being themselves. I think that’s a problem.”
The irony of Muhammad’s rise to international fencing success is that it was about as American as one might imagine.
Muhammad tried nearly every sport as a kid, from softball and track to tennis. But the constant modifications Muhammad would have to make to her uniform – like adding sleeves or wearing pants when her teammates had on shorts – were growing tiresome.
Then one day while in the car with her mother, a 12-year-old Muhammad noticed a fencing practice through the windows of a local high school. Since fencers are covered from head to toe for protection, Muhammad knew right away she had found her calling – and perhaps even a way to help pay for college.
Muhammad soon hooked up with the Westbrook Foundation, an organization run by former Olympian Peter Westbrook to teach fencing to underserved communities in metro New York. She later earned a scholarship from Duke, where she was a three-time All-American.
“Don’t be fooled by that pretty face. She has something in her that it takes in real champions, that unbelievable will to win,” said Westbrook, who in 1984 became the first African-American to win an Olympic medal. “She is able to dig five stories deep to pull something out. And when she loses? Oh my God.”
Still, Muhammad put fencing largely aside after college, turning to teaching while she considered applying to law school. But she was still curious enough about her fencing to turn to a new coach, Akhi Spencer-El, who is also connected with the Westbrook Foundation.
Muhammad was Spencer-El’s first protege. Muhammad said she found in him someone who believed in her abilities as much as she did. That was enough to give Muhammad the push she needed to rededicate herself to the sport.
“I noticed she was something different. There was so much competitiveness,” Spencer-El said. “I knew I could get her to be on a level with the best in the world.”
It took a while, but Muhammad got there.
Muhammad made her first world championship in 2010, and she helped the Americans win a team bronze a year later. Two years ago, Muhammad was part of her first gold medal-winning senior world team.
Athletes have had to fight for the right to wear religious head coverings in sports like basketball and soccer, where FIFA changed its rules to allow hijabs in 2012.
But Muhammad has never had to downplay her faith in competition or in life. She often sports multicolored hijabs on and off the strip and has even started a clothing website with her siblings, Louella.com, for Muslim women seeking more colorful options while still adhering to their religion.
Muhammad has suffered her share of backlash, though. On Saturday at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Muhammad was asked by a volunteer to remove her hijab for a security photo and later tweeted that she couldn’t “make this stuff up.”
But Muhammad is intent on using her time in the spotlight to show the U.S. and the rest of the world that Muslim-Americans should be embraced, not shunned.
“I’ve never questioned myself as an American and my position here,” Muhammad said. “This is my home. This is who I am. My family has always been here. We’re American by birth, and it’s a part of who I am and this is all that I know.
“So when I hear someone say something like, ‘We’re going to send Muslims back to their country,’ it’s like, “Well, where am I going to go? I’m an American.”
– AP Sports Writer Eddie Pells contributed to this report from Los Angeles.