Beyond breaking numeric records, there aren’t that many ways left to make history in the Olympics.
But Ibtihaj Muhammad, a 30-year-old saber fencer from Maplewood, N.J., will do so at the games in Rio this summer.
This Saturday, she officially qualified for the games after earning bronze at the Fencing World Cup in Athens. It means she will be the first-ever American to wear a hijab while representing Team USA.
Muhammad grew up in New Jersey, and began fencing at age 13, when, according to TeamUsa.org, her mother saw the high school fencing team practicing and noticed the athletes were fully-covered, a necessity in Muhammad’s religion. Her skills were immediately apparent, and she was recruited to play by Duke University, where she was a three-time All-American.
Upon graduating, she turned pro.
“After I graduated from college, I saw there was a lack of minorities in the sport,” Muhammad told TeamUSA.org. “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.”
Muhammad nearly qualified for the 2012 Olympics, but succumbed to a torn ligament in her hand just a few months before the games.
In a 2011 profile of Muhammed, the Wall Street Journal noted that few Muslim women in general ever medal in the Olympics. The last major athlete to do so was Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco, who won the 400-meter hurdles in 1984. In that case, though, she was wearing shorts and a tank top.
“I’d love for other minority women and religious minorities [in the U.S.] to believe they can excel in something outside the norm—not just sports, anything where they’re breaking the barrier,” Muhammed told the Journal, “and not be deterred by what the image is just because they fall outside that box.”