Muslim fencer has it all covered

When Ibtihaj Muhammad discovered fencing in high school, there was no way she could have known her hobby would take her all the way to the cusp of the Olympic Games. Her passion for the sport was much simpler: As a practicing Muslim, she needed to cover herself in public. Here was a sport that required she do just that -- while still letting her experience the thrill of competing. Muhammad's knack for fencing quickly became evident, and she rose through the ranks to become one of the best in the country. Now, just three months from the announcement of the 2012 American Olympic team, she is training harder than ever for a spot on the roster, determined by points in upcoming tournaments. The competition is intense -- one mistake can be the difference between having a spot on the team or watching the Games from home -- but Muhammad remains focused. Her mother, Denise Muhammad, credits her daughter's success in part to her desire to be the first American Muslim female Olympian in her sport. espnW learned more from Denise about what it's been like for Ibti as an ethnic and religious outsider trying to fit in.

espnW: Fencing is a pretty niche sport. At what age did Ibti commit to it?

Denise Muhammad: We didn't even know what it was, really. She started getting involved with the sport in high school. But even at a young age, I encouraged all my children to be active. I have four daughters and a son, and they all played some kind of sport.

espnW: What else did Ibti play?

DM: She swam, played tennis, softball, track and field and volleyball. I'd make her outfits that covered her arms and legs, which allowed her to participate while still being true to her faith. She kept with volleyball through high school, along with fencing. But when it came time for college, it was clear there were better school opportunities for a fencer than a volleyball player. So she went that route.

espnW: Were you concerned about her fitting in?

DM: To a certain extent. Fencing is a very white sport. It isn't integrated, so she was truly a minority when she joined her team. But her teammates have been very accepting; it's her other friends, especially when she started, that gave her a hard time -- "You're doing what?!" -- that kind of thing. She learned early on not to let other people's opinions influence her goals in this sport.

espnW: Is that something she learned from you?

DM: I never played sports; I was just a spectator. I grew up in an era where girls were not encouraged to play sports. There were no female athletes in my family before Ibti.

espnW: The religious requirements do make it difficult ...

DM: As a Muslim girl playing school sports, you set yourself up to be singled out because of altering the uniforms. I don't think any of my Muslim friends or other Muslim women I knew would have encouraged their daughters to pursue athletics in a public school. Most of their children went to private schools, so they didn't have to face that situation. Financially, we couldn't do that. But I still encouraged my girls to play sports because of what it does for strengthening your body and your mind, and also because it's a healthy place for a social life. My girls knew I would never let them go to parties or mingle with the boys, but that was OK because they could socialize with their teammates.

espnW: What do you want your daughters to gain from playing sports?

DM: I want them to be self-confident. I raised Ibti to be very self-assured. With sports, when you're good at something, people are drawn to you -- they want to be around you, you're like a magnet. Ibti has made her identity as a fencer and an athlete. People respond to that, and it's given her confidence.

espnW: Where does she get her work ethic from?

DM: As a family, we never had money to play with. So it was always, if you're going to do something, we'll support you, but you need to give it your all. Don't be lackadaisical. But really, she pushes herself. She's a very competitive person.

espnW: You probably never imagined her getting to this point. Now that she has, any thoughts on her future?

DM: Well, last year at this time Ibti's goal was to make the world team. She kept saying, "Oh, Mom, if I could just make this team ..." And she did. Now it's, "Oh, Mom, if I could just make the Olympics ..." So that's obviously the big goal right now. We'll see -- the competition is very tough, but she's also very focused. As her mother, I don't want her to lose sight of having fun! I tell her, you don't have to carry our entire community on your shoulders. Just relax and enjoy it. You can't do any more than what God has planned for you."

-- Julia Savacool

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