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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Katie Ledecky extends 5-year win streak

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Katie Ledecky extended a five-year domestic win streak by taking the 200m freestyle at the Tyr Pro Swim Series at Bloomington on Saturday.

In her last full meet before July’s world championships, Ledecky clocked 1:55.80 to beat training partner Simone Manuel by 1.44 seconds for her second win in as many days. Ledecky is also entered in Sunday’s 800m free on the last day of the meet.

Ledecky, who also cruised to a 400m free victory on Friday, ranks third in the world in the 200m free this year, behind Australian Ariarne Titmus and Swede Sarah Sjöström (the Olympic silver medalist who is not expected to race the 200m free at worlds).

Ledecky, a five-time Olympic champion, hasn’t lost a 200m, 400m, 800m or 1500m free final at a domestic meet since Allison Schmitt beat her in a 200m free on Jan. 18, 2014 when Ledecky was 16 years old.

BLOOMINGTON: Full Results

But Ledecky lost the two biggest 200m frees of this Olympic cycle so far, at the 2017 World Championships and the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships. Italian veteran Federica Pellegrini handed Ledecky her first individual final defeat at a major international meet at 2017 Worlds.

Ledecky dropped to third in the 200m free at Pan Pacs in Tokyo last year, beaten by younger swimmers Taylor Ruck of Canada and Rikako Ikee of Japan.

Ruck, who like Ledecky trains at Stanford, is in Bloomington, but she chose not to swim the 200m free on Saturday. She instead swam the 200m backstroke about 45 minutes after the 200m free and was upset by 17-year-old Regan Smith. Smith won in 2:06.47, moving to No. 3 in the world this year.

In other events Saturday, Ella Eastin captured the 400m individual medley in 4:37.18, taking 1.25 seconds off her personal best and moving to fifth in the world this year. Eastin is not on the world championships team after an untimely bout with mono before qualifying meets last summer.

Blake Pieroni won the men’s 200m free in 1:47.25. No American ranks in the top 20 in the world this year. World silver medalist Townley Haas did not enter Bloomington.

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Noah Lyles wins duel with Christian Coleman in Shanghai

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Noah Lyles won the first of what will hopefully be multiple head-to-heads with Christian Coleman this season, taking a 100m at a Diamond League meet in Shanghai on Saturday.

Both U.S. sprint phenoms clocked 9.86 seconds, with Lyles coming from about fifth place at 50 meters to edge Coleman by .006 with a lean.

“This was a message to myself,” Lyles said, according to the IAAF. “The 100 has never been my dominant thing so I wanted to make sure this year that everybody knew I was a 100 and 200 runner, and not just a 200 runner kind of running the 100.”

It’s a personal best for Lyles. Coleman has run 9.79.

Lyles, undefeated in outdoor 200m races since finishing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials at age 18, beat Coleman for the first time in three career senior 100m head-to-heads.

While Lyles prefers the 200m, Coleman has said he hopes to qualify for this fall’s world championships in both the 100m and 200m.

If Coleman follows through on that, he and Lyles will face off in the 200m at the USATF Outdoor Championships in July. Saturday marked Coleman’s first individual race since Aug. 31.

“It is always a struggle to get in good form after such a long time away from competition, so I didn’t have any specific expectations for today,” Coleman said. “In general I am fine with 9.86 today.”

Full Shanghai results are here. The Diamond League next visits Stockholm on May 30.

In other events, Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba won his anticipated duel with Rai Benjamin in a matchup between the second- and third-fastest 400m hurdlers in history. Samba, who took up the event full-time two years ago, clocked 47.27 seconds, which would have been the fastest time in a decade if not for Samba and Benjamin’s rapid times last June.

Benjamin, born in the Bronx and raised partly in Antigua and Barbuda, was passed before the last hurdle and crossed in 47.80. Last June, Benjamin won the NCAA title in 47.02, then matching Edwin Moses as second-fastest in history. Samba ran 46.98 later that month.

Kevin Young remains the longest-standing world-record holder in men’s track racing, setting 46.78 in the 1992 Olympic final.

Sydney McLaughlin, who in Rio became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to compete at an Olympics in 44 years, was an impressive second in the 400m in her Diamond League debut. The 19-year-old pro, whose focus is the 400m hurdles, clung to world 400m silver medalist Salwa Eid Naser in the final straight and crossed in 50.78, just .13 back of Naser.

Naser hasn’t lost to anyone other than Olympic and world champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo in the last two years. Miller-Uibo was absent from Shanghai.

U.S. champion Aleia Hobbs won her senior international 100m debut in 11.03 seconds, beating a field that included Olympic champ Elaine Thompson. Hobbs did so two weeks after fracturing a wrist playing laser tag. Thompson, who last won a Diamond League race in 2017, was third in 11.14.

Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha won a battle among the three fastest active 5000m runners, bounding from Selemon Barega to win by .55 in 13:04.16. Barega won last year’s Diamond League Final in 12:43.02, the world’s fastest time in 13 years.

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