Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad is the first American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States and the first Muslim American woman to medal — in the 2016 Games in fencing. She launched the clothing company Louella with her siblings and is the author of "Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream" and the children's book "The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family."

How did you get into the sport of fencing?

My mom and I were driving past the local high school, and we saw athletes that were fully covered. And they were using swords. I remember my mom saying, “I don’t know what sport that is, but when you get to high school, I want you to try it out.” And literally that night, she found out what fencing was and signed me up for a lesson. Growing up, I played a lot of different sports. And when I was young, I didn’t wear a hijab yet, but I didn’t wear shorts, didn’t wear a tank top. So if the team uniform required those things, we always would have to go to a sporting goods store and find an alternative. I vaguely remember feeling a bit different, but not to the extent that I would feel once I got to high school.

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You talk about stepping into the fencing uniform and no longer being the person who stands out.

I love that about fencing. In volleyball I stood out because I wore a hijab, but also long sleeves, sweatpants. My teammates didn’t have on any of that: tank top, spandex, no hijab. [Laughs.] So to come to a sport where you just kind of can exist without being made to feel different was comforting. Fencing was this comforting space not just because I was dressed like everyone else but also because I truly liked the team.

Every year they were in contention to win a state championship. So I'm sure things are always greener when you're on a winning team, you know? I don't know if that same jovial kind of environment would exist if the team wasn't as strong. And the coaches did a really good job of planting that seed in everyone's head — that dream — that one day you could actually become that person to help the team win a state championship.

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You left competitive fencing for a while and talked about hitting rock bottom around then. Can you talk about what you went through and how you got back on the path?

Well, I graduated [from college] in the middle of a recession — 2007. So it was difficult to just find a job. And during that time of not being able to find a job and studying for the LSAT, I was also fencing. And I was working odd jobs to just make money; got a job at a Dollar Store. And somehow I convinced my parents to send me to a [fencing] World Cup. I think people thought I was delirious, right? Like, “What is she doing?” I was not only pushing back against my parents’ expectations of me pursuing a graduate degree, but also, [in] the fencing community, no one thinks it’s possible for you to make a senior national team if you haven’t made a junior team or a cadet team. Even within my own club I don’t think they expected much of anything from me — maybe a training partner for people who already have proven themselves. But I switched to this new coach, and I remember the first day we worked together, he was like, “You could be one of the best fencers in the world.” That was really motivating and encouraging for me, especially in a difficult time in my life.

Did that resonate with something you believed deep inside, even if it was a tough time?

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For so long I had a coach who never believed in me. I would often come home from practice in tears. So to have a coach who was supportive, I just thought that was so cool. Like, "Whoa, someone who is going to show up to practice and work hard with me?" You know, who wants to watch videos and break down matches with me and help me to understand what I'm doing wrong. As opposed to when you lose, a pat on the back, like, "I didn't expect much anyway."

So when did you start to believe you could really go far in fencing?

I don't know if I've ever been that person who's like, "I'm going to the Olympics." I just always think about things in increments. You know: I want to do well at this competition. I want to make the round of 16. I want to make the eight. I want to make a final. Just step by step. When I look back on my career, on how hard I've worked, even from the time I was a kid, it all makes sense. Like, not everybody was as crazy as I was. And not everybody had that drive. I don't even know where it comes from. But I think that that's the difference between Olympians and non-Olympians. There's a really fine line between Olympian and crazy.

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You’ve gone on to create a clothing company. Can you talk about the motivation behind that?

Growing up, if you wanted a dress, you had to buy, like, a tank top dress from one store, find a matching long-sleeve from another store, and then you still had to find a hijab. It was just a lot. So even though I don't have any experience in starting a business, I just felt like someone had to do it. Why not me and my siblings? The demand was always there; there was no one accommodating this really expansive group of women who don't necessarily want to wear, you know, barely-there tops or miniskirts or anything like that. And it's not just about dressing the Muslim woman, it's about providing modest clothing for women who want to express themselves through what they wear.

You’ve broken through a lot of barriers — do you have advice you give others trying to push through?

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Don’t be afraid to focus on yourself. Don’t be afraid to reject someone’s disbelief in you. There are people who will never believe in you, or think that you’re good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, tall enough, thin enough — those people are always going to exist. It’s how you respond to those people. And to me, the best thing to do is ignore it. My mom would always tell me, “Don’t be a sponge, don’t absorb things. Let it roll off your back.”

People may think I’m comfortable speaking out all the time. That wasn’t the case when I was competing. Thankfully, I realized that I needed to keep my head down and focus on myself and not on everything going on around me. There’s something to be said for allowing the results to speak for themselves. If someone makes a wayward comment, and I were to constantly respond, respond, respond, it’s draining. That person may be just uneducated on the particular topic, or ignorant, or intentionally mean. I’m not going to allow you to take my happiness or my energy in that moment. I have teams to make. I have medals to win. At some point, it’s just not worth my time.

This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen’s latest book, “Activist: Portraits of Courage,” will be published in October. Follow KK on Twitter:  @kkOttesen.

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