U.S. Fencing's Ibtihaj Muhammad demonstrates her fencing jacket.jpg
U.S. Fencing's Ibtihaj Muhammad demonstrates her fencing jacket
Photograph: Photo by U.S. Embassy London, used under CC BY-ND

Ibtihaj Muhammad is set to leave a mark at the Summer Olympics, no matter how she ends up doing in the women's sabre fencing events in Rio de Janeiro.

When she takes the stage at the Carioca arena in Monday's individual tournament, she will be the first US athlete to compete wearing a hijab.

Among her most prominent fans are President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, who have both cited the young woman as a symbol of America's variety of cultures and religions.

For the 30-year-old Muhammad, this is only her first attempt at Olympic glory after her disappointment from four years ago, when a hand injury prevented her from competing in London.

Muhammad is outspoken about the message that her headgear sends at the Olympic Games.

"I'm hoping that just my presence on Team USA changes the misconceptions that people may have about the Muslim community," the African American athlete said in Rio.

"It's a very slippery slope when you use hateful rhetoric, when you openly use bigoted comments towards a group of people, and you encourage violence, so I'm hoping that the rhetoric changes and changes fast."

The Games in Brazil take place against the backdrop of a divisive presidential race that has been heated up by the Republican candidate Donald Trump's hard-line stance towards Muslims.

For Muhammad, her hijab is not a hindrance. In fact, she chose fencing because it is a sport in which the gear covers the whole body.

"I wanted to participate in a sport where I could adhere to the tenets of my faith, but also people don't look at me for being a minority or being a woman - it's simply for your skill set," she said.

Nevertheless, Muhammad encountered Islamophobia and racism when she started out.

"When I competed in local tournaments, there were often comments about me being black or being Muslim. It hurt," she has told the New Yorker magazine.

Muhammad only took up fencing when she was already in middle school, and she did not start competing at the senior level until she was 23.

Muhammad is currently ranked 8th in the world by the international fencing association FIE, making her a potential favourite for an individual medal.

The medal chances are likewise strong in the team event on August 13, with the US team that included Muhammad winning the world championship in 2014.

"People told me there was no way I was going to make it on to the national team even, so to totally defy those odds and qualify for an Olympic team, I'm hoping to just create a different standard," the international relations and African studies major said in Rio.

Off the fencing piste, Muhammad has launched her own fashion line, Louella, and she has been working as a sports ambassador with the US State Department to empower women and girls through sports.

Despite her standing and acclaim, Muhammad still encounters hate.

A few months before the Olympics, a man on the street told her she looked suspicious. "He started asking me if I was going to blow something up," she told broadcaster NBC.

"You have to use your moment to help people around you," the athlete said in Rio. "There are so many whose voices aren't heard."

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