"I want people to see Muslim women in a way that they're not used to seeing us," Ibtihaj Muhammad tells PEOPLE

By Rose Minutaglio
Updated July 28, 2016 03:30 PM
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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.

For more on Ibtihaj Muhammad, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

“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.”

RELATED: PEOPLE’s Collector’s Edition ‘The Best of the Games’ Is Out Now!

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.