Ibtihaj Muhammad
AP

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.”

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Geraint Thomas cuts Julian Alaphilippe’s Tour de France lead

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FOIX, France (AP) — When one French rider starts to fade, another comes to the fore. One way or the other, France may still be on course for its first Tour de France winner since 1985.

Dancing over his saddle, his mouth wide open and gasping for air, Thibaut Pinot launched a ferocious attack Sunday and profited from the first signs of weakness in the high mountains from French race leader Julian Alaphilippe to edge closer to the yellow jersey in the overall standings.

Ascending the last uphill finish in the Pyrenees with a display of power and fluidity that signaled that he’ll also be a major contender to win the Tour, Pinot gained time on all his rivals for the second consecutive day following his triumph at the famed Tourmalet mountain in the previous stage.

Heading to the second and final rest day Monday ahead of what promises to be a climactic final week in the Alps, the race is exquisitely poised. Six riders are all within 2 minutes, 14 seconds of each other at the top of the standings.

The six terrible ascents above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) in the Alps, peppered over three mountain stages, will likely decide who will stand on top of the podium on the Champs-Elysees next Sunday.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

“The high mountains have only just begun,” said Alaphilippe. “The Alps are going to be a big mouthful.”

Surging from the mist and rain, Pinot crossed the finish line of Sunday’s Stage 15 in second place, 33 seconds behind Simon Yates, who posted a second stage win after a long solo raid, three days after his first stage victory in the southwestern mountain range.

The 29-year-old Pinot was irresistible when he made his move seven kilometers from the summit. Only Emanuel Buchmann and defending champion Geraint Thomas’ teammate Egan Bernal could follow. But Pinot accelerated again about 2 kilometers later to drop them for good.

Pinot moved to fourth place overall, 1 minute, 50 seconds behind Alaphilippe.

“The weather conditions and the stage were good for me, I had good sensations, I needed to make the most of it,” said Pinot. “I need to keep going up in the general classification, the most difficult stages are looming.”

While Pinot was escorted by his faithful Groupama-FDJ teammate David Gaudu in the final ascent toward Prat d’Albis, Alaphilippe was isolated without a single teammate to help him in the 12-kilometer climb and cracked, yet managed to salvage his yellow jersey.

Alaphilippe was so exhausted after his effort up the hill, where he grimaced through the rain, that he had to grip a roadside barrier afterward while he caught his breath.

“If I crack I hope he’ll carry the torch for the French,” Alaphilippe said about Pinot.

Thomas, who had already conceded time to Pinot at the Tourmalet, remained second in the general classification. He got dropped when Pinot took the lead from a reduced group of contenders but did not panic. He rode at his pace until he accelerated with 1.5 kilometers left to cut the overall gap on Alaphilippe from 2 minutes, 2 seconds to 1:35. Steven Kruijswijk of the Netherlands stood third overall, 1:47 off the pace.

Thomas said after the stage he could have tried to follow Pinot earlier but instead opted for a conservative approach because he did not want to bring back Alaphilippe to the front. Bernal was with Pinot and the Welshman would not take the risk of chasing down their common rival. Bernal, a Colombian with excellent climbing skills, remains involved in the fight for the yellow jersey, 2:02 behind Alaphilippe.

“I felt better than yesterday but I needed to try to pace it when it all kicked off,” Thomas said. “It’s a difficult one, tactics wise. I wanted to go, I had the legs to go but I wasn’t going to chase down Egan Bernal with Alaphilippe on my wheel.”

Coming right after the ascent of the Tourmalet, Stage 15 ran close to the ancient Cathar castles and was a punishing ride totaling more than 39 kilometers of climbing.

Alaphilippe was so exhausted after his effort up the hill, where he grimaced and dribbled through the rain, that he had to grip a roadside barrier afterward while he caught his breath.

“If I crack I hope he’ll carry the torch for the French,” Alaphilippe said about Pinot.

Yates, the Vuelta defending champion, was given a free reign by the peloton when he took part in an early breakaway as he was not a threat overall. He made his decisive move about 9 kilometers from the line.

“I’m very proud of that,” Yates said of his second victory at this Tour.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce turns back the clock, wins another Diamond League

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Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce continues to show she’s just as fast as before childbirth, winning a Diamond League 100m in 10.78 seconds in London on Sunday.

Fraser-Pryce, a 32-year-old, two-time Olympic champion, beat a field that included the two fastest women of 2018, Brit Dina Asher-Smith (10.92) and Ivorian Marie-Josee Ta Lou (10.98).

It lacked the only woman ranked higher than Fraser-Pryce this season, Rio Olympic champion Elaine Thompson, who edged her countrywoman at the Jamaican Championships on June 21.

But Fraser-Pryce has now broken 10.79 three times this season, her first time doing so since 2013. She could become the oldest woman to win an Olympic or world 100m title in Doha in two months.

“10.78 is a fabulous time,” she said. “My aim for Doha is definitely to be on the podium. For me, it’s a long season from here, so I am hoping my experience will come into play.”

Full London results are here. The meet lacked U.S. stars who are preparing for this week’s USATF Outdoor Championships, where world champs spots are at stake. The Diamond League resumes Aug. 18 in Birmingham, Great Britain.

Also Sunday, Kenyan Hellen Obiri won an anticipated head-to-head with Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in the 5000m. Obiri, the world champion, clocked 14:20.36, the world’s fastest time in two years. Hassan, who nine days ago broke the mile world record, took third in a European record 14:22.12.

Swede Daniel Ståhl won a discus that included the world’s top three this year and the reigning Olympic and world gold and silver medalists. Stahl launched a 68.56-meter throw to overtake Jamaican Fedrick Dacres.

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