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St. Cloud swimmers break barriers for Muslim girls in sports

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Apollo High School senior Suhan Mohamed competes in the 50-meter freestyle.
Apollo High School senior Suhan Mohamed competes in the 50-meter freestyle during a recent swim meet in St. Cloud.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

It's the end of the school day at Apollo High School, and members of the girls' swim team are getting ready to jump into the pool for practice.

Among them are Suhan Mohamed and Nimo Gohe. The two seniors are talking and laughing with their teammates, and seem to fit right in. 

It's hard to believe that until a few months ago, these two had no idea how to swim.

Mohamed and Gohe are making news as the first Muslim girls to compete on the Apollo High School swim team, and among the first to swim competitively in Minnesota. They've gotten statewide media attention as trailblazers who are challenging traditions in a sport many Muslim girls have shied away from, although they're still a little shy in front of the cameras.

Mohamed moved here from Somalia about two years ago. She'd been to the ocean, but said that was nothing like learning competitive swimming.

Apollo High School seniors Suhan Mohamed, left, and Nimo Gohe
Apollo High School seniors Suhan Mohamed, left, and Nimo Gohe are the first Somali-American girls to join the girls swim team.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"Like, how to put your face in the water and blow bubbles. That was the first time," Mohamed said.

Alex Badger took over as the team's head coach this year. As a teacher of English as a second language, Badger works with many of the school's roughly 400 Somali American students. 

"I knew that we had some girls that would be really stellar athletes and really stellar examples and leaders in the community," she said.

But Badger also knew some of the reasons Somali girls often stay away from sports. 

"When the students come here, they're so focused on academics," she said. "They're so focused on school. They know this is their chance to get an education. So speaking with parents and students and saying, 'You know, I'm so happy you're focused on your studies, but there's a bigger picture here.' Because swimming and athletics and activities of course can be a part of your high school experience, and I wanted them to experience that."

Suhan Mohamed wears a specially designed full-body swim suit.
Suhan Mohamed wears a specially designed full-body swim suit that complies with her religion's faith and traditions.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Last summer, Badger organized a free swim camp at a nearby college. 

"The idea was come learn how to swim," Badger said. "If you love it, join the team. If you don't love it, at least you have those fundamental skills for a state that has 10,000 lakes and however many bodies of water."

Mohamed and Gohe both went and did love it. But Mohamed said joining the team was still a little scary.

"I was kind of concerned," she said. "Will they look at you a different way? What will they say?"

One obstacle that often keeps Muslim girls out of the pool is the religious requirement of modest clothing. Badger helped Mohamed and Gohe go online and find special full-body swim suits with a head covering.

Nimo Gohe, in red jacket, and Suhan Mohamed cheer on their teammates.
Nimo Gohe, in red jacket, and Suhan Mohamed cheer on their teammates.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

When they found out Mohamed and Gohe would be joining the team, the team captains decided to change the team's swim suits from the traditional Apollo colors of red, white and blue. 

"We decided since their suits were going to be all black, pretty much that we would try to incorporate our suits with theirs and try to tie them together to make them a part of feel like a part of the team more," said Rachel Warner, one of the team captains.

"It was kind of amazing because they welcome us like one of them," Mohamed said. 

Their teammates say Mohamed and Gohe fit right in.

"I wasn't too sure how long they were going to stay, because I knew that they've never been in the water before, and it was a big step from that," said Bethany Knopp, an eighth-grader. "But I'm really glad about how far they've come, and they've really improved."

At the team's last home meet of the season, the stands were packed. Gohe and Mohamed competed in the 50-yard freestyle.

Nimo Gohe, right, dives in for the 50-meter freestyle event.
Nimo Gohe, right, dives into the water as she competes in the 50-meter freestyle event.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

The two finished behind the rest of the pack. But they didn't seem to mind, and the entire crowd cheered them on.

Badger said what Mohamed and Gohe are doing as role models for their peers has made a difference.

"I've been trying to explain to them all the barriers they've been breaking for getting kids involved in sports and athletics," Badger said. "This week alone, I've had 10 Somali girls come up and say they want to swim next year."

Mohamed said many of her Somali friends would like to join activities, but are nervous. 

"I was telling them today that they should join the team — not only swimming, but all the other sports," she said. "Just be confident to yourself and do whatever you love to do."

Correction: (Oct. 24, 2017) Suhan Mohamed and Nimo Gohe were misidentified in earlier photo captions. The captions have been updated.