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Olympic Fencer to Make History by Wearing Hijab in Rio Games

A three-time All-American at Duke in fencing, Ibtihaj Muhammad is ranked second in the nation and 12th in the world

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    American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad talks Zaheer Booth during a training session at the Fencers Club on July 7, 2016 in New York City. Muhammad will be the first Muslim women to represent the United States while wearing a hijab at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

    Athletes competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics share a common goal: to leave Brazil with a medal. But fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad also sees the games as an opportunity to teach Americans about the Muslim faith.

    "I feel like I've been blessed to be in this position, to be given this platform," Muhammad, a Duke graduate, told The Associated Press in March

    "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. 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," she said.

    Muhammad, who grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, will be the first American athlete to compete in the games while wearing a hijab, the head scarf required of Muslim women.

    A three-time All-American at Duke in fencing, the 30-year old Muhammad is ranked second in the nation in the sabre — and 12th in the world, according to her profile on the USA Fencing website

    In three years at Duke, Muhammad compiled a 127-15 record while earning bachelor degrees in international relations and African American studies.

    "She always had the raw talent. Everyone who watched her fence could see that," Blue Devils fencing coach Alex Beguinet told Duke Magazine in June.

    That "raw talent" was also harnessed by coaches at the Westbrook Foundation, a non-profit that introduces fencing to metropolitan area New York City kids. Coaches Peter Westbrook and Akhi Spencer-El expect Muhammad's competitiveness to be on display for the world to see in Rio.

    "Don’t be fooled by that pretty face," Westbrook, who won the bronze medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, told The Associated Press in March.   

    "She has something in her that it takes in real champions, that unbelievable will to win. She is able to dig five stories deep to pull something out. And when she loses? Oh my God."

    Muhammad's determination is not limited to the piste. She has used social media to chronicle disturbing incidents in which she was the victim of prejudice.

    In March, she tweeted that a volunteer at South by Southwest had asked her to remove her hijab, even though she was to speak at the event, according to the Chicago Tribune. A few weeks later, in April, Muhammad posted a photo on Twitter of a man in New York City who she said asked if she was planning to "blow something up," ESPN reported.

    Muhammad's Olympic inception coincides with the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for president. Part of Trump’s platform has called for barring Muslims from the United States, a philosophy that baffles Muhammad.

    "I'm excited to provide a different image of what people are used to seeing from a Muslim woman. I don’t want to see the same image every time of Muslim women on TV," she told the Charlotte Observer

    "It’s not representative of the Muslim women that I know living in the States. What I see is very narrow. It may be a woman in all black, or a woman in a burka. As Muslims, we have conservatives and we have liberals and everyone in between. You can’t paint us all with one broad stroke. That can be frustrating," she added.

    Without mentioning Trump by name, Muhammad questioned his ideology. 

    "My family has always been here. I'm American by birth. This is part of who I am and it is all that I know," Muhammad said. "So when I hear someone say something like, 'We’re going to send Muslims back to their countries,' then I’m like: 'Where am I going to go? I’m American.'"

    Rivals in Rio includes only schools that participate in the Nissan College 100 program.