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Muslim fencer represents Team USA at the Olympics and beyond

American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters
American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad

Ibtihaj Muhammad grew up like any American kid.

Her parents encouraged her and her four siblings to play sports, and she participated in everything from tennis to track and field. But while her teammates wore short-sleeved shirts and shorts, her mom would sew sleeves on shirts, or find her sweatpants to wear.

"I just remember being singled out because I was different," she said.

Despite the backlash, Muhammad never felt she was a part of the team — until she discovered fencing. She and her mother drove by a local Maplewood, New Jersey, high school and saw people trying the sport.

"That was the first time in my life, being involved in fencing, that I was in uniform with everyone else," she said. "I really felt in this space where I was accepted by not just my teammates but I felt comfortable in myself."

After training for years, going to Duke University with a partial scholarship for her fencing and failing to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, Muhammad is finally a member of Team USA. Though she was knocked out in the second round of the women's individual saber competition, she'll have a second chance for Olympic gold when she competes in the women's team saber event on Saturday.

Notably, she's the first Muslim athlete to compete on behalf of the U.S. while wearing a hijab. And she's finding herself becoming a spokesperson for diversity and acceptance for brands such as Visa.

"In fencing, I've always loved in my sport once I put my mask on, I'm like everyone else," she said. "My uniform doesn't seem different in any way. People don't see I'm African-American in a sport that isn't diverse, or that I'm a Muslim woman in a sport that isn't diverse. I'm just solely known for my kind of athletic ability first and foremost."

American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad
David Ramos | Getty Images
American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad

Even outside of representing the U.S. in sports, Muhammad takes pride in her clothing business having American roots. The athlete runs Louella, a modern yet modest clothing line for women. All the clothes are manufactured in Los Angeles.

"When I looked at a lot of athletes, especially post-Olympics, I feel like a lot of people struggled to find their footing and their life after the sport," she said. "For me, I'm such a planner, I need to know what I'm doing after I'm done fencing. Having this void in the U.S. market for modest clothing, it just seemed very, like, this organic idea to start a clothing line."

Muhammad and her three sisters design the products and handle distribution on the East Coast, while her brother oversees production on the West Coast. It was also important to her that the clothing was created in an ethical manner.

"We're in this moment and time where people are thinking how they're affecting communities, not just local but abroad," she said.

Chris Curtin, chief brand and innovation marketing officer for Visa, said that the company chose the fencer to be one of the faces of Team Visa during the 2016 Olympics because she represented a multifaceted athlete with a unique story. He insists that the decision was not a political one, despite the current debates about the Muslim religion during this election cycle.

Instead, he said Muhammad was chosen because her story reflected the acceptance that Visa hopes its brand stands for, whether it means where and how its payments are received or who it backs at the Olympic games.

"We looked at a world and a society and a culture that is talking a lot about what acceptance means," Curtin said. "We felt we should have our voice say that in that way, both within the company and outside the company. Much of what she represents is precisely what we hope Visa to represent: a borderless view of the world."

Muhammad isn't taking that chance to stand out lightly.

"To be chosen based on the premise of me being different, to be chosen by team Visa to be part of this global campaign of acceptance and inclusion has just been so special to me," she said. "It really has. I love being a part of a brand that recognizes so many talented athletes around the world that all have these different stories — who all are different, and we all come from different walks of life. It helps children growing up that it's OK to be different and lead with that foot of being different."