On Aug. 5, more than 10,500 of the greatest athletes in the world will stream into Maracanã Stadium for the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Give or take a few samba dancers, the scene in Rio de Janeiro will look much like all the other Olympic pageants before it, save for one crucial detail: for the first time, a member of Team USA will be wearing a hijab. The fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Muslim from New Jersey, earned that distinction in late January when she clinched a spot in the Games at a tournament in Athens. Days later, President Obama called her out by name during the first visit of his presidency to a U.S. mosque.
Less than a week after Obama’s shout-out, Muhammad sits unnoticed at a Manhattan Starbucks, talking about something that scares her far more than a sword darting toward her face. “If Donald Trump had his way, America would be white,” Muhammad says between sips of a skinny hazelnut latte. “And there wouldn’t be any color. And there wouldn’t be any diversity here.”
This is charged turf for an Olympian.
These athletes, the bulk of whom attract attention only once every four years, tend to shy away from politics. Even a whiff of controversy has the potential to turn off potential fans and alienate the corporate sponsors that help subsidize their dreams. But Trump’s rise to the front of the Republican presidential pack, along with his call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S., is more than Muhammad can abide.
“When you incite hateful speech and rhetoric like that, the people who say it never think about the repercussions and how that affects Muslims,” says Muhammad.
“Specifically Muslim women who wear their religion every single day. So then you start to think, Am I going to be safe?”
With that, Muhammad touches on the critical issue that sets her apart from all the other fantastically talented, maniacally driven members of Team USA. The scarf covering her head is, above all, a deeply personal statement of her faith. But it is also a decidedly public signal of her beliefs: to supporters, it’s a sign of arrival; to detractors, it’s a mark of otherness. It is the reason millions of Americans are cheering for a sport that ranks somewhere below darts in the public consciousness.
“I was jumping up and down, and immediately starting texting friends and calling family members,” says Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy organization. “This is such a moment of pride and progress, and there’s no going back.”
The story first appeared on TIME MAGAZINE