Ibtihaj Muhammad spent most of August fasting until sunset. That is when the Muslim-American fencer, who was observing the holy month of Ramadan, was allowed to eat and quench her thirst for the first time all day.
Fasting is difficult under the best of circumstances, but for an athlete training rigorously for the opportunity to represent the United States in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, it can present health risks as well.
"Ramadan and training is always a difficult act in that you have to really be conscious of your body and what your body is telling you," said Muhammad, who is 25 years old and ranked 11th in the world in women's saber.
To make sure Muhammad could keep up her training regimen, the United States Olympic Committee had her consult with a nutritionist in the weeks leading up to Ramadan.
She was put on a high-protein diet of peanut butter, bananas, yogurt and other nutritional food. And this was one instance in which it was OK to raid the refrigerator during the night.
"When you are an athlete, you have a huge appetite, and it's not anything I can control," Muhammad said. "After the sun goes down, I'm constantly eating and drinking."
Muhammad, who is from Maplewood, N.J., woke up every 90 minutes during the night to eat and drink as much as possible. She needed to be well-fortified for her daily workout, which included a run at 7:30 a.m. and fencing practice in the afternoon. She and her coach, Akhnaten Spencer-El, also adjusted her schedule to include an evening session. "My coach has been very accommodating," Muhammad said. "He and I have lessons after dinner, which is 9 to 10 p.m."
She doesn't ask for any sympathy during Ramadan. Practicing her religion and her fencing at the same time has become second nature to her, she said. Besides, every Olympic hopeful faces obstacles in a quest for gold.
"Fasting is not meant to be easy, but I don't think my struggle is different from anyone else's," Muhammad said.
In fact, this has been a dress rehearsal for her. If she qualifies for the Olympics, Muhammad would have to compete during Ramadan, which begins July 20 next year. The London Olympics open July 27.
"If I were blessed and fortunate enough to qualify for the Games, there would be no reason not to fast," she said. Olympic qualifying for fencing is next April.
Although Muhammad is not assured of an Olympic berth, she has made remarkable progress, given that she did not take up fencing until she was a high school freshman. She went on to become a three-time All American at Duke University from 2004-07. She won the U.S. national title in 2009 and the bronze medal at the 2010 Pan Am Games.
Also noteworthy is that Muhammad would be the first hijab-wearing, or headscarf-wearing, Muslim female athlete to represent the U.S. in the Olympic Games. She also holds the distinction of being the first African-American woman to qualify for women's saber at the world championships, as well as the first female Muslim member of the U.S. fencing team.
"It's huge," Muhammad said. "I hope I can inspire one Muslim girl to try fencing -- not even all Muslim girls, but just one."