For Muslim-American fencer, Olympic goal extends beyond medals

Fri Mar 11, 2016 9:08am EST
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By Joshua Schneyer

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (Reuters) - U.S. fencing powerhouse Ibtihaj Muhammad is no stranger to sabre rattling, so when the Muslim-American athlete heard Donald Trump threaten to ban Muslims from U.S. shores, it only steeled her resolve to return home with a medal from the Rio Olympics.

Muhammad will make history in Rio as the first U.S. Olympian to represent her country wearing a hijab. It's not an honor she takes lightly, in part because of what she perceives as growing anti-Muslim rhetoric among some Americans, stoked by Trump.

The U.S. presidential hopeful proposed in December to ban Muslims from entering the country following the deadly shootings in San Bernardino, California, by two Muslims who authorities said were radicalized.

"I feel like I owe it to people who look like me to speak out," Muhammad told reporters on Wednesday. "When I hear someone say something like, 'We're going to send Muslims back to their countries,' I say, 'Well, I'm American. Where am I going to go?"

A champion sabre fencer, Muhammad's trajectory in her sport since age 13 was shaped in part by her religion, and partly by a fierce sense of competitiveness.

One of five siblings, she remembers growing up in an athletic family but feeling out of place in some sports because she chose to dress more modestly than other girls. With fencing, where competitors don protective suits and facemasks, that wasn't an issue.

"I was self serving," Muhammad said. "I wanted to find a sport where I could be covered and I didn't have to look different from everyone else."

Muhammad, 30, didn't immediately fall in love with swordplay, finding fencing tedious at first. But the New Jersey resident stuck with it for another reason: the promise of a college athletic scholarship.   Continued...

U.S. Olympic team fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad poses for a portrait at the U.S. Olympic Committee Media Summit in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California, March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson