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Fencing's Trailblazer: Ibtihaj Muhammad

By Kristie Aronow | May 09, 2013, 1 p.m. (ET)

Ibtihaj Muhammad with her silver medal at the 2013 Bologna
Women's Sabre World Cup in Bologna, Italy.

Being a trailblazer isn’t something you set out to do at 13, but that is when Ibtihaj Muhammad’s fencing journey began.

As an African-American Muslim woman fencer, Muhammad’s athletic career has been full of firsts, among them is being the first Muslim woman to represent the United States in international fencing competition. But she hopes to eclipse her past achievements by earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. Without scoring a point, Muhammad would make history as the first U.S. Olympian to compete in a hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women.

Before Olympic history can be made, however, Muhammad must continue to prove herself on the international stage. She finished 11th in senior women’s saber at the Korfanty World Cup, held last weekend in Chicago. Though she didn’t podium individually, Muhammad was successful in helping lead the United States to a team gold medal.

Team USA’s lineup included two-time Olympic champion Mariel Zagunis, Dagmara Wozniak, Eliza Stone and Muhammad. The team beat Russia, the three-time reigning senior world team champions, in the semifinals, a good sign for Team USA which will fence in the senior world championships in August.

“I think we set the bar high in terms of being ranked third in the world,” Muhammad said. “After defeating Russia in the semifinals, we proved to ourselves that we can beat Russia on the strip.”

Overall, she feels like she’s building towards something spectacular this season.

“I’m having the best season of my life,” Muhammad said, “So, of course, I wish I had done better, but I’m really pleased with my progress this season.”

Having the best season of her life is exactly what Muhammad needs if she is going to earn the title of Olympian. As her coach, Akhi Spencer-El, put it, their goal isn’t today, it’s 2016.

This new mantra comes on the heels of narrowly missing the London 2012 Olympic Games. In 2012, Muhammad was fighting to overcome a torn ligament in her hand, an injury she suffered in China mere months before the Games.

“I know that it wasn’t meant for me to qualify for the 2012 Olympics,” Muhammad said.

Muhammad took six months to rest and rehabilitate her hand. Now she says she feels reinvigorated, stronger mentally and physically. She comes back to fencing as a leader to women worldwide.

Ibtihaj Muhammad in action at the 2013 Bologna Women's Sabre
World Cup in Bologna, Italy.

When she isn’t practicing or competing, Muhammad acts as a sports envoy for the U.S. State Department. As part of the Empowering Women and Girls through Sports Initiative, which formed in 2012 as a global effort to engage women and girls, Muhammad shares her experiences with young women from around the globe, discussing the importance of gender equality and diversity.

“At this point in my career it’s important that I lay the groundwork for athletes who are different,” Muhammad said. “Sports is a great tool to bridge different communities and different cultures.”

Although a fencer since high school, it wasn’t until after college at Duke University that Muhammad decided to dedicate herself to the mission of inspiring young women athletes.

“After I graduated from college, I saw there was a lack of minorities in the sport,” Muhammad said. “I recognized that I had a skill set, so I started to pursue fencing full time. I felt that it was something the squad needed. There were barriers that needed to be broken in women’s saber.”

Breaking barriers in women’s saber isn’t a role Muhammad was always excited to fill. When she first held a saber, at 16, Muhammad cried tears of uncertainty.  She had always been an epée fencer, but her high school teammates had graduated, taking all the saber fencers with them, so Muhammad had to switch disciplines.

“I fenced epée for three years, and (fencing saber) wasn’t something I was too sure about when I started,” she said.

Now, Muhammad loves her sabers. She has four different swords she takes with her to competitions, in case she breaks a blade. Each saber inspires a slightly different feeling in her hands, depending on their weight and balance.

A good saber is expensive; one of Muhammad’s biggest challenges is raising the capital to compete. She said she must raise approximately $20,000 annually to fence on the international circuit. One way Muhammad has begun to fundraise is selling T-shirts with the slogan “Everything is better in a hijab” sprawled on the front in bright letters.

Since December, Lis’n Up, the Muslim company that creates and sells Muhammad’s T-shirts, has sold more than 600 shirts. Lis’n Up gives 50 percent of the profit to a charity of the customer’s choice. To help raise capital, Muhammad created a travel and training fund her fans could donate to when making their shirt purchases. Of the 600 shirts sold, 500 went to Muhammad’s fund. Launching this week, Muhammad offers customers a bright pink shirt, which will help raise money for breast cancer research.

“It’s not always easy being different,” Muhammad said. “But I wanted to provide a shirt that would empower women and help them feel comfortable with who they are despite other people’s misconceptions.”

Story courtesy of Red Line Editorial, Inc. Kristie Aronow is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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Ibtihaj Muhammad