When I think about the most meaningful race of my high school cross-country career, it’s as if I can feel the way my clothes stuck to my skin, as I ran in the late-summer heat. I can hear the voice of a spectator cheering the name of my school… powerful enough to make-goosebumps rise on the back of my neck, which was covered by my hijab. I struggled to outrun an athlete who held onto my pace through the last half-mile. But I could still hear the spectator’s cheers in my mind, even as I raced the last hundred meters with my eyes barely open. “C’MON HAYFIELD!” It was that moment I realized the pure sense of unity runners shared. True camaraderie does not concern itself with race, ethnicity, or otherwise. On that cross-country course, I felt connected with even those runners and spectators whom I had never met… because our love for the sport ran deep.
Four years later, my athletic interests have shifted to the sport of tumbling. Though learning new stunts is liberating, the sense of athletic unity is absent. When I toed the starting line as a young teen, I never consciously thought about the way I dressed. It was assumed that runners of all backgrounds were welcome. My coaches respected the coexistence of faith and athleticism which I represented, as I never complained about the summer heat. As I continue to perfect my back-handspring at a local cheerleading gym, I strive to encourage Muslim female participation in sports. But this motive often leads me to feel disconnected from other athletes. Recently, my coach asked, “Don’t you feel hot,” observing the sleeves that covered my arms.
I don’t know where to begin. This question represents a lack of understanding of the value a person assumes of their religious dress. No, I don’t feel hot, or uncomfortable to any degree until my attention was drawn to my attire. The values I represent through religion and tumbling often overlap. If I hadn’t believed in my athletic abilities, I never would have learned to do a back-handspring. Rather than focusing on the fear, I patiently learned how to execute the skill. In the same way, I’ve committed myself to the hijab because I direct my energy in supporting athletic participation of hijab-practicing women, rather than the presumed discomforts it can deliver.
Although I haven’t felt connected with other tumblers lately, I return to the cheer gym with an open mind. During my tumbling class yesterday, I worked with another coach named Jessie. He encouraged me to do a round-off back-handspring for the first time. Jessie heavily spotted my first few attempts until I was ready for a lighter spot. He instructed me to do a power-hurdle round-off and jump up to simulate the push into a back-handspring. I did a round-off, jumped high into the air, and felt his arms catch me. He held me for a few seconds, as I was in shock about not only his strength but also how completely I trusted him. This moment was one of the few times that I felt connected with another tumbler. The color of the arms that held me did not matter, or any other demographics that too often divide us. The expanse of the spring floor was as much mine as it was his… a shared space where athletes come together for the love of tumbling. His hand wrapped around my torso, and his arms supported the weight of my legs. Jessie’s effort to spot me safely was clear. He was as eager to help me achieve my athletic goals as I was.