Muslim "girl from Jersey" poised to make U.S. Olympic history

U.S. Olympian wears hijab
U.S. Olympian wears hijab 04:50

Last Updated Aug 11, 2016 9:34 AM EDT

The Rio Olympics kick off Friday night, but one athlete from team USA is making history before the games begin.

After two decades of fitness training, sparring and lots of lunging, 2016 is the year for fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. For the 30-year-old, identity is important - she's African-American and a Muslim woman. And after failing to make the 2012 Olympic team, she's back with a clear objective that goes beyond her desire to win gold, reports Elaine Quijano of CBS News' digital network, CBSN.

The self-described Jersey girl and three-time All-American at Duke University is going to her first Olympic Games.

"I just feel very blessed to... have qualified for the team, and it's just -- I'm so excited," Muhammad said. "And I'm like, 'When is this excitement going to wear off?'"

She will experience another first in Rio by becoming the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab.

"I feel like my hijab is liberating. It is a part of who I am, and I believe that it allows people to see me for my voice and not necessarily how I look," Muhammad said. "I hope that it'll change a lot of the misconceptions that people have about Muslim women specifically."

Muhammad chose fencing as a kid because unlike other sports, it allowed her to both honor her Muslim faith and blend in.

"It was the first time where I truly felt a part of the team," Muhammad said. "It was the first time I was in uniform with everyone else and I didn't have to adjust it in any way by, like adding length to the sleeves or wearing pants when everyone else had on shorts."

Muhammad's high school coach, Frank Mustilli, who began working with her in his garage, knew she had the aggressive analytical approach to excel.

"I knew she would be a champion," Mustilli said. "There's not a whole lot of children that walk in here and have that look -- to be able to look at through opponent and say, 'you're not even there, because you know what? I'm focused on that gold medal and you just happen to be between me and it.'"

Muhammad ran us through the basics of sabre fencing, including how to take the perfect stance, the weapon, the attack and strategy. Muhammad compares the sport to chess.

"There's strategy, and you want to be a step ahead of your opponent," Muhammad said.

Muhammad said she owes it to her community to use her platform as an Olympic athlete to speak out against hate.

"We're in this time where people are very comfortable, speaking out against Muslims. I had a man encounter me on the street and told me that I looked suspicious, and that I looked like I was [going to] blow something up," Muhammad recalled. "And he followed me to my train. I felt so unsafe and I was afraid. Here I am, a U.S. Olympian and that's my reality."

This is a reality President Obama acknowledged earlier this year at a Baltimore mosque.

"Muslim Americans enrich our lives today in every way. When Team USA marches into the next Olympics, one of the Americans waving the red white and blue will be a fencing champion wearing her hijab -- Ibtihaj Muhammad, who is here today," the president said to cheers.

And even though Muhammad was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, when she puts on that helmet in Rio, she'll be just another American athlete focused on winning the gold.

"I tell people all the time that I'm just a girl from Jersey who had a dream and was willing to work hard for it," Muhammad said.

Along with her siblings, Muhammad is also the co-owner of a modest fashionable clothing line -- inspired by her mother and grandmother --for women who want to dress modestly without being dowdy.