Hometown: Maplewood, NJ
As a young athlete who played tennis, softball, and volleyball and ran track, Muhammad often wore extra clothing to cover her body so that she could conform to traditional Muslim standards of dress. But when she was 12, she and her mother discovered a sport where that wouldn't be unusual: fencing, which has full-body uniforms. "When I put on my fencing mask, no one sees my hijab," Muhammad says, referring to her head scarf. "I'm just another athlete seen solely for their skill set."
Still, she faced discrimination and odd looks when she showed up to events where most of the competitors were white and many were not familiar with Muslim customs. She stood out not only because of her hijab, but also because of the color of her skin. "When people told me I couldn't do certain things," she says, "I said, O.K., I'm gonna show you how well I can do it and I'm gonna do it better than you can."
After graduating from Duke in 2007, her goal was to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team and add diversity to the squad. A torn hand ligament prevented her from making it in '12, but in February she qualified for this year's Games by winning a bronze medal at the Women's Saber World Cup. In Rio, she will become the first woman to compete for the U.S. while wearing a hijab.
"I think when people hear my story, they see where there's a will, there's a way," she says. "You owe it to yourself to create and dictate your own journey."
Photo: Simon Bruty