By HANSI LO WANG
Even if fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad doesn’t medal at the Rio Olympics, she is set to make the history books.
Once she hits the fencing strip for her first bout in the women’s individual sabre competition on Aug. 8, she will become the first U.S. Olympic athlete to compete while wearing a hijab.
The only Muslim woman on Team USA this summer, Muhammad says she didn’t find fencing. The sport found her when she was 12, during a car ride with her mother. They were passing a fencing practice at her local high school in Maplewood, N.J., and her mother couldn’t help but notice what the athletes were wearing.
“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,” explains Muhammad, now 30.
She 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, never feeling fully part of the team.
Fencing solved that problem and, she says, gave her focus.
“I enjoy being able to critique myself when I’m finished fencing,” she said in a 2012 interview with NPR’s Michel Martin. “It’s really easy to 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.”
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. In the months before arriving in Rio, she continued her training at the Fencers Club in New York City with her coach, Akhnaten “Akhi” Spencer-El, who started working with her in 2009.
Spencer-El says her personality is a perfect fit for sabre fencing — strong-willed, aggressive and determined to win since day one.
“Sometimes her personality would get her in trouble only because young kids, they question things — you know, ‘Why do I have to do push-ups’ and stuff,” he says. “But when you do that, you know, there are consequences.”
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.
“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,” he says.
She shared some of her frustration with her Twitter followers in March after an incident with a volunteer at the South by Southwest festival.