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Diversity in the U.S. Olympic Team a Cause for Optimism

Ibtihaj Muhammad Team Usa

Aug 8, 2016

Social media and political news have been so joyless recently that I was ready for the Olympics when they started Friday night. It felt a little sappy to become emotional when the Refugee Team entered the arena during the Opening Ceremonies, but the fact that it existed testified to people’s ability to hope and self-expression, even in difficult, uncertain circumstances.

While watching women’s gymnastics on the weekend, you couldn’t miss the diversity of the American team, particularly next to their competition. As Michele Waslin observed in a recent article at, that team is just the tip of the iceberg. Wallin listed members of the American delegation from other countries including: 

  • Hillary BorPaul ChelimoShadrack Kipchirchir, and Leonard Korir were all born in Kenya. Since coming to the U.S., they enlisted in the Army, train with the military’sWorld Class Athlete Program (WCAP), acquired U.S. citizenship, and will compete for the U.S. in track and field. According to WCAP supervisor Captain Matthew Hickey, “It’s a pretty humbling moment to think that somebody would want to leave their country and come to yours and do so to the degree in which they would die for something they haven’t even been a part of yet.” Bor’s brother also joined the Army and is now serving in Afghanistan.
  • S. shooter Enkelejda Shehaj competed for her native Albania for many years. She feared fleeing “because family would have consequences. Like my parents would go to jail. I always knew what would happen. I’ve heard stories from other people that their kids being abroad, Albania, with competitions, they were in danger. They would send them in the worst places to live and with no electricity or not even minimum things that you need to be alive.” She eventually fled to the U.S. in 1999 and became a citizen in 2012.
  • Runner Charles Jock was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia after his parents fled civil war in Sudan. He came to the U.S. with his family at age three where they were granted asylum and settled in San Diego.
  • Nick Delpopolo, who competes in Judo was born Petra Perovic in Montenegro where he spent his first 21 months in a dirt-floor orphanage. He was adopted by American parents and grew up in New Jersey.
  • Jay Shi, who is on the shooting team, came to the U.S. for medical treatment at age 11 after suffering an eye injury. He and his family stayed and became U.S. citizens.
  • Gymnast Danell Leyva was born in Cuba. His family defected to the U.S. when he was a baby.

Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American athlete to compete while wearing a hijab when she had her first match in fencing's saber competition. She won her first round match against Olena Kravatska of Ukraine before losing to Cecilia Berder of France. 

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