An American Muslim Fencer Lunges Into U.S. Olympic History In Rio : The Torch Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is set to become the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Olympic Games while wearing a hijab.

An American Muslim Fencer Lunges Into U.S. Olympic History In Rio

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We're going to meet an Olympian who has caught the attention of President Obama.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I told her bring home the gold.


OBAMA: Not to put any pressure on you.

INSKEEP: Now, even if she does not get a medal in Rio, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is set to make history because she will be the first U.S. athlete to compete while wearing a hijab, or headscarf. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Ibtihaj Muhammad says she didn't find fencing. The sport found her. She and her mom were driving past a fencing practice in Maplewood, N.J. What caught their eyes was...

IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD: The attire. Fencers, they wear long jackets. And they wear long pants. And as a Muslim youth, I was looking for a sport where I didn't have to alter the uniform in any way.

WANG: Muhammad began covering in high school as part of her faith. To play volleyball, she wore sweatpants and a T-shirt along with her team's uniform. But it was sabre fencing that gave her focus, as she told NPR back in 2012.


MUHAMMAD: I enjoy being able to critique myself when I'm finished fencing. It's really easy to, you know, lose and be able to fix your mistakes, whereas on a team, you know, I guess whether you win or lose can be in the hands of someone else. And I've never felt comfortable with that.

WANG: At this year's women's sabre World Cup in January, Muhammad took home bronze. It was enough for her to finally make the U.S. Olympic team at 30 years old. And in the months leading up to Rio, she continued her training here at the Fencers Club in New York City.

WANG: How many times does Ibti come here to train?

AKHNATEN SPENCER-EL: She comes here, like, every day - every day, working hard.

WANG: Akhnaten Spencer-El has been coaching Muhammad for more than seven years now. He says her personality is a perfect fit for sabre fencing - strong-willed, aggressive and determined to win since day one.

SPENCER-EL: Sometimes, her personality can get her in trouble only because young kids, they question things. Why do I have to do push-ups? It's stuff, you know, regular stuff. But when you do that, you know, there are consequences (laughter).

WANG: Over the years, Muhammad learned to channel that spirit. She's now ranked No. 2 in the U.S. and eighth internationally in women's sabre fencing. She also launched a fashion line of modest women's clothing after graduating from Duke University. Through it all, Spencer-El says she has stayed poised against her competitors and a harsh public spotlight while wearing a hijab.

SPENCER-EL: Going through security and everybody comes out but her - or taking her into another place in the airport to search her than everyone else. It really doesn't even phase her. It's like, here we go again, I guess.

PETER WESTBROOK: Sometimes, she tells me, Peter, being a black woman is not easy. Being a Muslim woman is not easy. Combine the two. I walk down the street. I catch hell.

WANG: That was Peter Westbrook, one of Muhammad's fencing mentors. Back in 1984, he became the first African-American fencer to win an Olympic medal. Westbrook says he uses that experience to help Muhammad navigate through a predominantly white sport.

WESTBROOK: By being an African-American, by being a Muslim, her nerves is always on edge. So this sport is natural for her because this is a nerve sport.

WANG: One where losing or winning can be determined in a hundredth of a second. Still, like athletes who broke barriers before her, Ibtihaj Muhammad also has had to fend off personal attacks. A few months ago, she posted on Twitter that a man followed her down a street in Manhattan, saying that she looked, quote, "suspicious" and asking if she was going to blow something up.

MUHAMMAD: America's all that I know. I feel American down to my bones. And for anyone to challenge that idea that I'm not American or that I don't belong, it's frustrating.

You know, I want people to see a Muslim woman in hijab and represent the United States this summer. I don't want people to think that that's out of the norm.

WANG: Muhammad says she wishes she wasn't the first Muslim woman in a hijab to represent Team USA. But she hopes she won't be the last. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

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