Ibtihaj Muhammad
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Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad to make history for Muslim-Americans

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Ibtihaj Muhammad stood beaming on the podium in Budapest in 2013, flashing a bright smile, a World Championships bronze medal and the red, white and blue hijab that perfectly encapsulated who she is as an athlete and a person.

Muhammad, a New Jersey-born fencer, is a proud Muslim and an equally proud American. And this summer at the Rio Olympics, Muhammad will seek to stand up for her community by fighting for a country that hasn’t always fought for those who share her faith.

Muhammad, the middle daughter of a retired detective and special education teacher, will become the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab, the head scarf required of Muslim women.

Those circumstances have put Muhammad, 30, on a platform well beyond sports.

She’s hoping her presence as an Olympian can help counter the recent wave of anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S., triggered in part by Donald Trump‘s comments about banning Muslims from the U.S.

“I feel like I’ve been blessed to be in this position, to be given this platform. When I think of my predecessors, and people who’ve spoken out against bigotry and hate, I feel like I owe it not just to myself but to my community to try to fight it,” said Muhammad, who is ranked seventh in the world in the women’s sabre. “There are people who don’t feel safe going to work every day, that don’t feel safe being themselves. I think that’s a problem.”

The irony of Muhammad’s rise to international fencing success is that it was about as American as one might imagine.

Well, almost.

Muhammad tried nearly every sport as a kid, from softball and track to tennis. But the constant modifications Muhammad would have to make to her uniform — like adding sleeves or wearing pants when her teammates had on shorts – were growing tiresome.

Then one day while in the car with her mother, a 12-year-old Muhammad noticed a fencing practice through the windows of a local high school. Since fencers are covered from head to toe for protection, Muhammad knew right away she had found her calling – and perhaps even a way to help pay for college.

Muhammad soon hooked up with the Westbrook Foundation, an organization run by 1984 Olympic bronze medalist Peter Westbrook to teach fencing to underserved communities in metro New York. She later earned a scholarship from Duke, where she was a three-time All-American.

“Don’t be fooled by that pretty face. She has something in her that it takes in real champions, that unbelievable will to win,” said Westbrook, who in 1984 became the first African-American to win an Olympic medal. “She is able to dig five stories deep to pull something out. And when she loses? Oh my God.”

Still, Muhammad put fencing largely aside after college, turning to teaching while she considered applying to law school. But she was still curious enough about her fencing to turn to a new coach, Akhi Spencer-El, who is also connected with the Westbrook Foundation.

Muhammad was Spencer-El’s first protégé. Muhammad said she found in him someone who believed in her abilities as much as she did. That was enough to give Muhammad the push she needed to rededicate herself to the sport.

“I noticed she was something different. There was so much competitiveness,” Spencer-El said. “I knew I could get her to be on a level with the best in the world.”

It took a while, but Muhammad got there.

Muhammad made her first World Championships team in 2010, and she helped the Americans win a team bronze a year later. Two years ago, Muhammad was part of her first gold medal-winning senior Worlds team.

Athletes have had to fight for the right to wear religious head coverings in sports like basketball and soccer, where FIFA changed its rules to allow hijabs in 2012.

But Muhammad has never had to downplay her faith in competition or in life. She often sports multicolored hijabs on and off the strip and has even started a clothing website with her siblings, Louella.com, for Muslim women seeking more colorful options while still adhering to their religion.

Muhammad has suffered her share of backlash, though. On Saturday at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Muhammad was asked by a volunteer to remove her hijab for a security photo and later tweeted that she couldn’t “make this stuff up.”

But Muhammad is intent on using her time in the spotlight to show the U.S. and the rest of the world that Muslim-Americans should be embraced, not shunned.

“I’ve never questioned myself as an American and my position here,” Muhammad said. “This is my home. This is who I am. My family has always been here. We’re American by birth, and it’s a part of who I am and this is all that I know.

“So when I hear someone say something like, ‘We’re going to send Muslims back to their country,’ it’s like, “Well, where am I going to go? I’m an American.”

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Rio Olympics

Mikaela Shiffrin has rare fall in World Cup race

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SAN VIGILIO DI MAREBBE, Italy (AP) — Overall World Cup leader Mikaela Shiffrin had an uncharacteristic fall and Ragnhild Mowinckel of Norway held a slim lead following the first run of a challenging giant slalom on Tuesday.

Seeking her first victory, Mowinckel held a 0.08-second lead over Marta Bassino of Italy and was 0.09 ahead of Viktoria Rebensburg at the Kronplatz resort.

Shiffrin lost control of her inside ski coming around a turn as she entered the steepest section of a slope named Erta, which translates as steep. Shiffrin slid a long way down the course but immediately got up and was not injured.

After missing a gate on Sunday in a super-G in Cortina d’Ampezzo, it marks the first time in Shiffrin’s career that she has failed to finish two consecutive races.

Russian Olympic, world champion skaters barred from PyeongChang

Viktor Ahn
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MOSCOW (AP) — Several of Russia’s top medal hopes for next month’s Olympics, including six-time speedskating gold medalist Viktor Ahn, have been barred from the Pyeongchang Games amid the country’s ongoing doping scandal.

The Russian Olympic Committee said Tuesday that Ahn, cross-country skier Sergei Ustyugov and biathlete Anton Shipulin have been left out of an International Olympic Committee pool of eligible athletes.

Other officials said that two-time figure skating medalist Ksenia Stolbova and several other speedskaters were excluded. The Russian Figure Skating Federation said the IOC was trying to provoke Russia into a boycott.

ROC senior vice president Stanislav Pozdnyakov said in a statement that he discovered the absences during negotiations with IOC officials on Monday and has asked the Olympic body to explain why they were not included.

Pozdnyakov said Ahn, Ustyugov and Shipulin “have never been involved in any doping cases and all of the many samples they have given during their careers testify that they are clean athletes. Regardless, their names are currently missing from the list of potential participants in the games.”

The IOC said it would not comment on individual cases.

Ahn, a short-track speedskater, won three gold medals for South Korea at the 2006 Olympics as Ahn Hyun-soo before switching allegiance to Russia in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where he won three more.

The Russian Figure Skating Federation said in a statement that Stolbova, who won team gold and pairs silver in 2014, was excluded, as well as ice dancer Ivan Bukin, the son of 1988 Olympic gold medalist Andrei Bukin.

The federation said it was “deeply disappointed in this baseless IOC decision which is reminiscent of a provocation with the aim of forcing Russian athletes by any means possible to decline to participate in the games.”

The head of the Russian Skating Union, Alexei Kravtsov, told the RIA Novosti state news agency that numerous other speedskaters had been barred.

They include world champions Pavel Kulizhnikov and Denis Yuskov, both of whom have previously served bans for failed doping tests, as well as Ruslan Zakharov, who won an Olympic relay gold medal in short-track speedskating in Sochi in 2014.

As punishment for what it termed a sophisticated Russian doping program at the 2014 Olympics, the IOC has forced all Russians competing in Pyeongchang to do so as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” under the Olympic flag, rather than as an official Russian team.

Russian athletes must be vetted by an IOC commission, which will examine their history of drug testing and links to past doping, before they are invited to the games.

On Friday, the IOC said it had cut an initial list of 500 Russian athletes down to a pool of 389, but didn’t give any names. Russian officials have expressed hope they could field a team of 200 athletes. That’s below the number that competed for Russia in 2014, but above its total from the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow is waiting for the IOC to clarify the situation.

“We have seen those deplorable reports in the media,” Peskov said. “We deeply regret if such decisions have indeed been taken. But we hope the situation will clear up because we do have contacts with the IOC. We hope those contacts will help clarify the situation around the aforementioned prominent athletes.”

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MORE: IOC creates pool of Russians eligible for PyeongChang Olympics