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Place of Residence: Maplewood, N.J.
Why she is a local hero: Muhammad, a fencer and a Muslim, could become the first American woman to compete in the Olympics with a hijab, the head scarf worn by Muslim women.
Muhammad is the first to admit how badly she wants to make it to the Olympics in London later this year, and as one of the top-ranked female sabre fencers in the world, she has an excellent chance of making the team. Though no official records have been kept, U.S. officials believe Muhammad would be the first American woman to compete in the hijab.
“It can be hard to imagine yourself as an Olympic athlete because of the way you dress,” Muhammad told the Huffington Post. “But I’m hoping this opens the door for Muslim girls to imagine themselves in this space. If this message reaches anyone, even one person, it will be worth it.”
Muhammad grew up in an athletic household but finding a sport she could play was a challenge. Playing volleyball, she couldn’t wear the short shorts or tight tops that other girls wore because of her religious beliefs, and she felt uncomfortable when her teammates would make comments about her dress.
One day, her mother saw fencers practicing in the high school cafeteria covered from head to toe as she was driving past.
“I don’t know what that is,” Denise Muhammad said to her daughter, “but when you get to high school, you’re doing it.”
And did she ever do it.
She captained two state championship teams at Columbia High School in Maplewood. In fencing, everyone had to dress the same. It was the first time that Muhammad truly felt as if she was part of a team.