Maplewood, New Jersey – With each burst of energy, Ibtihaj Muhammad usually shreds her opponents with relative ease.
“A lot of people say that fencing is the physical chess,” Muhammad told theGrio’s Todd Johnson. “That’s what I love about it…the strategy that’s involved so many different angles to fencing that I appreciate.”
Ibti, as she’s known to her friends, is as unique a site on the fencing circuit as you’ll see — a young African-American Muslim woman who chooses to wear a headscarf or hijab while she fences.
“I’m a practicing Muslim woman so I knew that growing up I would have to eventually cover,” Muhammad said. “So I wanted to find a sport where, you know it’d be accommodating to my faith.”
WATCH IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD’S INSPIRING STORY HERE:
Muhammad earned a spot on the U.S. World Championship Fencing team last year and says she’s vying for one spot that’s up for grabs to represent the U.S. in London in 2012.
She grew in a northern New Jersey suburb. She fenced throughout high school before she became an All-American at Duke in Women’s saber, which is her weapon.
She was addicted to the competition but frustrated by the lack of diversity around her.
Being different wasn’t easy.
“Within the fencing community, there’s still a lot of apprehension when it comes to encountering a Muslim fencer,” she said. “I mean, there are very, very few.”
Muhammad’s mentor, Peter Westbrook, is a former six-time Olympic fencer. He’s been breaking down barriers since he was born.
Muhammad came to Westbrook when she was 16 and looking for more diversity in the sport she loved.
“Ibti used to get on my nerves because she’s so strong-willed, she’s so persistent, she’s so stubborn,” said Westbrook, who started his own foundation twenty years ago to help young fencers like Ibti. ”[I tell her] however people feel about African-Amercian[s], however they feel about Islamic people, it it’s not positive, you have to use that as a springboard to go to higher heights.”
It’s sound advice for the 25-year-old rising star – who is currently the second-highest ranked fencer in woman’s saber.
She will find out early next year if her dreams will become reality.
“Making the Olympic team shouldn’t be easy,” Muhammad said. “That’s my ultimate goal right now. It’s what I want.”