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Muslim Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad Makes Olympic History

On Monday, Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first U.S. athlete to wear a hijab during the Olympics

U.S. fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad made history as the first U.S. athlete to wear a hijab during the Olympics but was eliminated in her second bout in the women's sabre tournament on Monday. 

Muhammad won 15-13 over Olena Kravatska of Ukraine in the opening bout Monday morning but later lost to Cecilia Berder of France 15-12.

She will compete in the women's team sabre on Saturday, Aug. 13.

The day's competition ended with Russia's Yana Egorian defeating countrywoman Sofya Velikaya in the gold medal match, while Ukraine's Olga Kharlan took bronze by beating France's Manon Brunet.

In Muhammad's first bout, chants of "USA, USA" rang out in the arena as she and Kravatska traded points, tying the match several times.

Muhammad gained a 14-13 advantage and then dodged one last attack from Kravatska to score the winning point.

In the second bout, Muhammad started with an early lead against Berder but the French fencer rallied back and ended the first period with an 8-7 lead. Muhammad struggled to score points in the second period trialing 8-13. She scored two points then Berder scored her 14th. 

Muhammad had a chance for a comeback but she was backed to the end of the piste by Berder and slipped off. That gave Berder a point she needed to win the bout. 

It looked like Muhammad was about to make a comeback when backed to the end of the piste by Berder, she slipped off of it. When this occurs, a point is awarded to the fencer's opponent, thus giving Berder the victory.

Muhammad, a New Jersey native who has used her profile as an Olympian to try to change misconceptions others might have about Muslim-Americans, ranks eighth in the world in her weapon.

"I feel like this is a great opportunity and a great moment for Team USA to even be more diverse than we have in the past, and I'm just looking forward to representing myself, my community and also my country," Muhammad said.

Competing in the same event was two-time Olympic gold medalist Mariel Zagunis of the U.S., who was a medal favorite. She, too, was eliminated early.

Zagunis came in fourth in London after suffering the first two individual losses of her Olympic career, but she told NBC Olympics the Rio Games were to be a “clean slate” for her.

On Monday Zagunis beat Panamanian fencer Eileen Grench 15-5 in her opening bout. She then lost to 22-seed Ekaterina Dyachenko of Russia 15-12. It was her worst finish in the individual event to date.

A third American, Dagmara Wozniak, was eliminated in her first-round match against Greece's Vassiliki Vougiouka, 15-8.

Muhammad, who started fencing in part because the uniform allowed her to adhere to the tenets of her faith, first made headlines when she qualified for the Olympics this year.

Muhammad subsequently became one of the biggest faces of the U.S. team, appearing on talk shows all over the country while garnering attention not often showered on fencers.

"I wish that, not just my life, but the lives of Muslims all over the world were a little bit easier, particularly in the United States. I'm hoping that with my first-time appearance as a member of Team USA here at the Olympics, I'm hoping that the rhetoric around the Muslim community will change," Muhammad said after arriving in Rio de Janeiro last week.

As far as the piste goes, Muhammad might just be peaking at the right time. She will next-face ninth-ranked Cecilia Berder of France.

Muhammad, a three-time NCAA All-American at Duke, has had a slow but steady rise to the top of the sabre community. She has moved from 12th to eighth in the world standings in 2016 and won gold at the Pan American Championships in Panama in June.

Muhammad also won bronze medals in recent World Cups in Greece and France, and the Olympic fencing tournament has so far been kind to underdogs.

The first two gold medalists were ranked seventh and 11th in the world, respectively.

"Being in this moment," Muhammad said, "I'm just very appreciative and thankful that I get to not just to do this for myself because it's been a lot of hard work, but hopefully in turn do this for other people all around the world."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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