African American in Hijab a Fencing Standout

Ibtihaj Muhammad (left) (Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images)
Ibtihaj Muhammad (left) (Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images)

After the USA won a gold medal last month in women's team fencing at the Pan American Games, there was little chance of mistaking which one on the podium was Ibtihaj Muhammad.


She was the one on the left, next to the two blondes.

Muhammad is accustomed to sticking out in a sport that's dominated largely in the United States by Caucasian athletes. From her brown skin to her traditional Muslim headscarf to her uniform with "Muhammad" across the back, the 25-year-old New Jersey native is impossible to miss.


And if she's good enough, she'll be even more noticeable next year in London at the Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Committee doesn't track athletes according to religion, but fencing officials believe that Muhammad would be the first practicing Muslim woman to represent the U.S.

She didn't intend to become a pioneer when she took up fencing in high school. But she understands the attention she draws and embraces the message sends.

"I think my motto in this whole experience is that sports is something you can do in hijab, and you shouldn't let your faith compromise how athletically gifted you become," Muhammad said in an entry on the Women's Media Center. "Just like race or gender, religion should not hinder you from achieving your goals."

Muhammad, currently ranked 22nd in the world in women's saber, hopes to join a short list of African-American Olympians who competed in predominantly white sports. But those are usually winter sports.


In 2006 speedskater Shani Davis became the first African American to win an individual gold medal in a Winter Games. In 2002 Vonetta Flowers became the first African American — and first black person, period — to win a gold medal (two-man bobsled). In 1988 Debi Thomas became the only African American to win an Olympic medal in figure skating.

Muhammad's race doesn't play a role in her performance, but her religion could be a factor if she makes it to London. She fasts during the holy month of Ramadan, which coincides with the Olympics next August.


"Ramadan and training is always a difficult act in that you have to really be conscious of your body and what your body is telling you," she told ESPN. "Fasting is not meant to be easy, but I don't think my struggle is different from anyone else's."

No different from anyone else?

That's a bit of a stretch, but it's the right attitude and the proper approach.

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