Place of Residence: Maplewood, N.J.
Why she is a local hero: Muhammad, a fencer and a Muslim, could become the first American woman to compete in the Olympics with a hijab, the head scarf worn by Muslim women.
Muhammad is the first to admit how badly she wants to make it to the Olympics in London later this year, and as one of the top-ranked female sabre fencers in the world, she has an excellent chance of making the team. Though no official records have been kept, U.S. officials believe Muhammad would be the first American woman to compete in the hijab.
“It can be hard to imagine yourself as an Olympic athlete because of the way you dress,” Muhammad told the Huffington Post. “But I’m hoping this opens the door for Muslim girls to imagine themselves in this space. If this message reaches anyone, even one person, it will be worth it.”
Muhammad grew up in an athletic household but finding a sport she could play was a challenge. Playing volleyball, she couldn’t wear the short shorts or tight tops that other girls wore because of her religious beliefs, and she felt uncomfortable when her teammates would make comments about her dress.
One day, her mother saw fencers practicing in the high school cafeteria covered from head to toe as she was driving past.
“I don’t know what that is,” Denise Muhammad said to her daughter, “but when you get to high school, you’re doing it.”
And did she ever do it.
She captained two state championship teams at Columbia High School in Maplewood. In fencing, everyone had to dress the same. It was the first time that Muhammad truly felt as if she was part of a team.
She used the sport to take her to Duke University, where she excelled athletically and academically. Muhammad became a three-time All-American and earned a dual degree in International Relations and African-American Studies with a minor in Arabic.
Muhammad didn’t lose her love of fencing after college. She began working with 2000 U.S. Olympian Akhi Spencer-El in New York and won a U.S. national title in 2009. Now she’s competing for one of two spots on the Olympic team.
And it hasn’t been easy. While training during Ramadan, when eating and drinking are prohibited from sun up to sundown, Muhammad would wake during the night to eat every 90 minutes to keep her strength during the day. If she makes the Olympics, she’ll likely have to maintain a similar regimen as the event will occur during Ramadan.
“I didn’t have female Muslim role models to look up to in the athletic world,” Muhammad told The Star-Ledger. “It’s really important for people to know my story. I think it’s something I have to do, because I want Muslim female youth to believe they can do something like this.”
Denise often watches her daughter compete and sees the cameras focus on her daughter’s name.
“I realized, my God, she’s representing all of us,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “You feel the pride. Muslim women are struggling around the world. She’s not on the front lines but when she stands up there, she’s making her mark for them, for freedom, to have their voices heard.”
It’s a challenge Muhammad has accepted. She won’t know whether she’s made the Olympic team until the end of March. Whatever happens, Muhammad knows she has made a difference.
“I think my motto in this whole experience is that sports is something you can do in hijab, and you shouldn’t let your faith compromise how athletically gifted you’ve become. Just like race or gender, religion should not hinder you from achieving your goals,” said Muhammad.
This Black History Month, we honor the GAME CHANGERS: Everyday heroes whose actions make life better for the people around them. SEE ALL OUR GAME CHANGERS HERE.