18 Under 18: Fawzia Kheir

Dickinson (Jersey City, N.J.) senior Fawzia Kheir competes in track and cross country while covering her entire body except for her face in accordance with Muslim custom. Courtesy of Jim Hague

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When it's time to hit the track for a practice or a meet, Fawzia Kheir pulls on a full head scarf, a long-sleeve compression shirt and long tights under her shorts -- even during the summer. It's her way of balancing her Muslim faith with her passion for running.

"It does get hot, and it can drag me down in the summer," said Kheir, a 17-year-old senior who competes for Dickinson (Jersey City, N.J.). "But I love running so much, I will sacrifice the pain. It's shocking to some people. But I can still run fast."

Once she reached puberty, Kheir -- in accordance with Muslim custom -- began covering her entire body except for her face while in public. She said the attire allows observant Muslim females to be judged by their morals, character and ideals instead of their appearance. "It wasn't mandatory for me, but it was the right thing to do," said Kheir. "The first time I ran with the head scarf, I took it off because it was uncomfortable. Then I put it back on.

"It's just a way of life. It's a way of showing respect," she said. "People can like me for who I am and not for my body."

Kheir's coach, Antwuanette Wilkins-Brown said Kheir fits in perfectly on her team.
"She's very easy to coach because she trains hard and never misses practice," Wilkins-Brown said. "I wish I had five [runners] just like her."

Jennyqua Young, one of Kheir's teammates and closest friends, describes her as funny, outgoing and kind-hearted. "Most of our team is diverse," Young said. "The more diversity, the better we can understand each other's backgrounds."

Another part of Kheir's life that she often has to explain to non-Muslims is Ramadan, which is the ninth month on the Islamic calendar. For the entire month, Muslims are required to refrain from eating or drinking during daylight hours. During Ramadan, Kheir typically drinks about five bottles of water before the sun rises and then trains at about 10 a.m. "It seems to get harder every year," she said. "I really have to push through it."

Wilkins-Brown believes Kheir, who was named first-team all-county after top-seven finishes at sectionals in the 800 meters, the 400 meters and the mile, has a good chance of running in college because she's such a versatile athlete. She has competed in everything from 55 meters to 5Ks, even enduring painful stress fractures on her feet during her freshman and sophomore seasons.

"Nothing stops her," Wilkins-Brown said. "I've joked with her and asked what happens if her head scarf falls off.

"She said, 'Well, coach, I would keep on running.' "