The long journey of America's first Olympian to compete in a hijab     DATE: 2024-07-15 15:43:05

Ibtihaj Muhammad was a college fencer at Duke University in 2004, the year her sport -- women's saber -- became an Olympic event at the Games in Athens, Greece.

She was more than a decade away from becoming the first American Olympian to compete wearing the hijab, a head scarf worn by many Muslim women, training for her college squad at an age when the best college-age fencers were already practicing for the Games.

SEE ALSO:Olympic athlete tweets difficulty registering for SXSW while wearing a hijab

Muhammad had been an athletic child, playing a range of sports such as tennis, volleyball and softball, but she was often teased and harassed for wearing the hijab. She only started fencing at the age of 13, as it was a sport that allowed her to conceal her hijab with the fencing helmet.

Mashable ImageUnited States fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad leaves at the end of a press conference.Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

Muhammad competed through college, earning All-American honors three times alongside dual bachelor degrees in African and African American studies as well as international relations, but only began to fully devote herself to fencing after graduation.

Her Olympics journey had started late -- many of the world's best fencers begin long before age 13. Yet her path to the Games would still turn out to be longer than most.

The 2008 Games in Beijing came and went without her. She lived at home in New Jersey with her parents, and earned some money substitute teaching.

Four years later, she was poised to make her Olympic leap at the Games in London. Muhammad was the the third best American in women's saber that year, but a quirk of Olympic guidelines limited the 2012 entries to two individuals, and the London Games had no team saber event. So Muhammad missed out on both. Even if she might have qualified, she tore a hand ligament months before competition began.

Yet her career continued its upward tick.

In 2015, she medalled for the fifth consecutive time as a part of U.S. fencing's world championship team. Her women's saber ranking at one point climbed to No. 7 in the world. This year, she won bronze at the Athens World Cup. In January, she finally qualified for her first Olympics, ranked No. 2 in the country, 17 years after she first took up the sport.

Mashable Top StoriesStay connected with the hottest stories of the day and the latest entertainment news.Sign up for Mashable's Top Stories newsletterBy signing up you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.Thanks for signing up!

From there, she has rapidly become one of the most recognized Olympians on the planet.

President Barack Obama praised her in February during a national address about the importance of Muslims in America.

And many Americans got to know her after she went to South by Southwest earlier this year and was asked to remove her hijab to get an ID photo.

The outpouring of online support for Muhammad was immediate, and she has since taken on an outsized role even before the Games begin in Rio.

"I want to compete in the Olympics for the United States to prove that nothing should hinder anyone from reaching their goals — not race, religion or gender," Muhammad said in an online profile. "I want to set an example that anything is possible with perseverance."

Muhammad, who is an American sports ambassador with the State Department's initiative to empower women and girls through athletics, has used her rising platform to talk about being Muslim in a country where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed a ban on Muslims coming to the U.S.

"I think that his words are very dangerous," Muhammad recently told CNN. "When these types of comments are made no one thinks about how they really affect people. I'm African American. I don't have another home to go to."

Muhammad added that by representing her country, she can help change the dialogue. "I'm hopeful that in my efforts to represent our country well as an athlete, that they change the rhetoric around how people think and perceive the Muslim community," she added.

The Games officially begin on Friday with the opening ceremony, for which Muhammad finished second to famed swimmer Michael Phelps in a vote to carry the American flag.

She's currently the 12th ranked women's fencer in the world, not a medal favorite but certainly a medal contender. And, at this point, it seems like little is out of the question for Muhammad. The odds of her becoming an Olympian when she only began fencing at 13 years old were slim. The odds of her doing it at 30 years old were arguably slimmer. When you then consider the odds of all of this leading to international fame, medaling at the Olympics seems almost likely.

Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.