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.”

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Rio Olympics

Christian Coleman expects to be cleared in doping whereabouts case

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U.S. sprinter Christian Coleman, whose time of 9.81 seconds in the 100m is the fastest in the world this year, released a statement Saturday denying reports that he has missed three doping tests in 12 months, a “whereabouts” violation that could result in a two-year ban.

“I’m not a guy who takes any supplements at all, so I’m never concerned about taking drug tests, at any time,” Coleman said. “What has been widely reported concerning filing violations is simply not true. I am confident the upcoming hearing on September 4th will clear the matter and I will compete at World Championships in Doha this fall. Sometime after the hearing, I will be free to answer questions about the matter, but for now I must reserve and respect the process.”

U.S. Anti-Doping Agency records show the agency has tested Coleman 11 times through Aug. 20. The agency requires elite athletes to give “whereabouts,” a few details on where they expect to be each day, so that they may take out-of-competition tests.

The 23-year-old sprinter would be the heavy favorite in the world championships, following up his silver medal between Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt in 2017, two months after he won the NCAA title. He is one of only eight athletes to break the 9.8-second mark in the 100m, and he posted the world’s best time in 2017 and 2018.

READ: Gatlin and Coleman beat Bolt in Jamaican star’s farewell championship

Since a loss to Noah Lyles in Shanghai in May, a race in which both Americans posted a time of 9.86, Coleman has won all three events he has entered — the Bislett Games in June, the Prefontaine Classic later in June, and the USATF Championships in July.

He withdrew from last week’s Diamond League meet in Birmingham.

The world championships start Sept. 27 in Doha.

U.S. men’s basketball roster named for FIBA World Cup, includes one Olympian

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Kemba Walker and one player with Olympic experience, Harrison Barnes, headline the U.S. roster for next month’s FIBA World Cup, where the U.S. is still expected to clinch its Tokyo Olympic spot despite an absence of the NBA’s best players and Saturday’s exhibition loss to Australia.

An injured Kyle Kuzma was dropped from the 13 finalists who gathered in Australia for pre-tournament exhibitions. Walker and Khris Middleton are the only two players on the team who were All-Stars last season. The full roster:

Harrison Barnes, Sacramento Kings
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets
Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Mason Plumlee, Denver Nuggets
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs

The U.S. group play schedule:

Sept. 1 vs. Czech Republic
Sept. 3 vs. Turkey
Sept. 5 vs. Japan

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will make his U.S. head coaching tournament debut at the World Cup, succeeding Mike Krzyzewski, who led the Americans to Olympic titles in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

Many notables dropped out before or during this month’s training camp and practices: including Olympians Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kevin Love and Kyle Lowry. Other 2020 Olympic hopefuls such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry withdrew before the camp roster was named.

It has become custom for the World Cup team to include few Olympians. The 2014 roster included two players from the London Olympics (Davis, Harden). The 2010 World Cup team had zero Beijing Olympians.

Saturday’s loss to Australia marked the U.S.’ first defeat with NBA players since the 2006 World Championship, snapping a 78-game win streak.

The U.S. will qualify for the Tokyo Games if it is one of the top two teams from the Americas at the World Cup. There is also a last-chance qualifying tournament next year.

MORE: Carmelo Anthony’s request denied to return to USA Basketball

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