*30-year-old Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad will make history as the first U.S. woman to compete wearing a hijab at the summer Games in Rio. And the athlete says she’s hopes to inspire young women along the way,
“For me, this is just who I am,” Muhammad, 30, tells PEOPLE. “Growing up a Muslim and a girl, I always had to change my uniform [for athletics]… My parents were in search of a sport for me where the athletes wore long pants and long jackets – that’s how we stumbled upon fencing.”
She adds, “I want people to see Muslims in a positive light. I want people to see Muslim women in a way that they’re not used to seeing us. If I can change the thought process of just one little girl, for me, I feel accomplished. On a larger scale if I can reach a lot of people, that’s a beautiful thing.”
Muhammad failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics – and she recalled how her friend’s response to the moment motivated her to work harder for the next Olympic games.
“I’ll never forget a little girl came up to me and she asked me, ‘Are you an Olympic athlete?’ And before I could respond my friend was like, ‘She’s not an Olympian,’ ” recalls Muhammad. “It was in that moment … I had this epiphany where I made this conscious decision that I wouldn’t allow someone else to take my journey and tell me you’re not an Olympian. I knew that it was something I could achieve, but I just had to buckle down over the next couple of years and work hard to qualify.”
“I have a very short window as an athlete. And I’m going to try to take advantage,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
She also explained to the publication how she has been the target of online and public harassment because of her faith. She has taken to social media to speak about her journey, leading President Obama to challenge her to win gold, adding: “Not to put any pressure on you.”
Two months after her meeting with Obama, she gave Michelle Obama a fencing lesson during a USOC event.