Ibtihaj Muhammad Will Be the First U.S. Olympic Athlete to Compete in a Hijab
"I want people to see Muslim women in a way that they're not used to seeing us," Ibtihaj Muhammad tells PEOPLE
Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad will make history as the first U.S. woman to compete wearing a hijab at the summer Games in Rio.
The athlete says she’s looking forward to competing in her sport for the country she loves this August – and if she happens to make headlines and inspire young women along the way, well, so be it!
“For me, this is just who I am,” Muhammad, 30, tells PEOPLE. “Growing up a Muslim and a girl, I always had to change my uniform [for athletics] My parents were in search of a sport for me where the athletes wore long pants and long jackets – that’s how we stumbled upon fencing.”
She adds, “I want people to see Muslims in a positive light. I want people to see Muslim women in a way that they’re not used to seeing us. If I can change the thought process of just one little girl, for me, I feel accomplished. On a larger scale if I can reach a lot of people, that’s a beautiful thing.”
Muhammad, a Maplewood, New Jersey, native, competed for her high school and later for Duke University before joining the U.S. National Fencing Team in 2010.
She failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics – but that disappointment only fueled her fire to make the Rio 2016 squad.
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“I’ll never forget a little girl came up to me and she asked me, ‘Are you an Olympic athlete?’ And before I could respond my friend was like, ‘She’s not an Olympian,’ ” recalls Muhammad. “It was in that moment I had this epiphany where I made this conscious decision that I wouldn’t allow someone else to take my journey and tell me you’re not an Olympian. I knew that it was something I could achieve, but I just had to buckle down over the next couple of years and work hard to qualify.”
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Muhammad says her goal for the Games is to represent her country, her community and herself well.
“I’d like to challenge these misconceptions that people may have of who a Muslim woman is,” she explains. “I’m so thankful and blessed to be in the position I am in.”
To learn more about all Olympic hopefuls, visit teamusa.org. The Rio Olympics begin august 5 on NBC.