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Ibtihaj Muhammad parries her way to Olympic fencing dreams

CNET chats with the US Olympic fencer on breaking barriers, staying connected and wearing techie jewelry.

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Ibtihaj Muhammad hopes to highlight diversity in sports during the Olympics this summer.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Ibtihaj Muhammad, one of the top-ranked fencers in the world, will make history this August when she becomes the first US woman to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab.

Though she's already helped highlight diversity in sports, an episode at the South by Southwest conference in Austin this year shows there's still a lot of work to be done. At the conference registration desk, she was asked to remove her hijab for an ID photo. She called out the request on Twitter and SXSW apologized.

CNET caught up with Muhammad last week at a Visa press event, where the company was showing off a new ring that can make payments at point-of-sale machines. Muhammad and the other 44 athletes sponsored by Team Visa will help test the new prototype ring at the Rio de Janeiro games. The idea for a ring stemmed from Visa's conversations with athletes, who wanted a payments device they could keep with them even if they didn't have pockets.

Here's what the 30-year-old, Maplewood, New Jersey-born fencer said about her hopes for the Olympics and her relationship with tech.

Q: How do you feel about going to the Olympics this year?
Muhammad: For me, it's a dream come true. This is my first Olympic games, and I'm really looking forward to it.

What's it like for you to make history at the games?
Muhammad: That was one of the driving forces that kept me in this sport for this length of time. When I looked at this sport, specifically the United States fencing team, it wasn't very diverse. And I just wanted to break that stereotype and challenge people's idea of what a fencer looks like. When I was told there had never been a Muslim woman who wears the hijab on the United States Olympic team, that was just another challenge, another goal I set for myself. I thought, "Oh wait, I want to do that." I wanted my younger self or kids now to see that nothing should hold them back from reaching their goals -- not their gender, not their race and not their religion.

What are your thoughts on the new Visa payment ring?
Muhammad: I'm looking forward to using it in Rio. I'm one of those people that doesn't carry around cash, I always have my card, so to have something so simple to wear, you don't even have to have a card anymore. I'm a girl who loves jewelry, so the fact that I can just tap and go in such a simplistic way is something I'm looking forward to.

Do you think it's something people are going to want to wear?
Muhammad: People are definitely going to be curious as to what it is. And the fact that it is another piece of jewelry, that people may not know that you're using it as a form of payment and it can be discreet, is very cool.

What other tech do you use? Are you married to your smartphone?
Muhammad: I think all millennials are. We don't know how to function without our computers, without our phones. The fact that we're living in this time that we can see things advance so quickly, like being able to pay with your ring, is phenomenal.