There’s nothing like going to a sporting event to feel the adrenaline rush, bask in the camaraderie, and find out who’s superior in a little friendly competition. While athletics are everywhere across the globe, unfortunately not everyone is always treated the same. One 14-year old girl in Tennessee learned the hard way that the battle doesn’t end on the court. But this ace wouldn’t give up so easily.

Najah Aqeel is your typical freshman in high school. She balances spending time with her friends with keeping up with her studies. But what makes her uniquely herself is her strong Muslim faith and her athletic passion.

George Walker IV – Nashville Tennessean

The young teen attends Valor Collegiate Academies, a public charter network based in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2020, she was a part of the girl’s volleyball team. As a devout Muslim, Najah always wears her hijab, and her team loved and supported her for it.

Aliya Aqeel

That fall, the volleyball team was looking forward to another game together. This contest would be an away game at another school, but it would be nothing like the others. There was a twist no coach or player saw coming.

Najah had always played with her hijab, it has never been an issue with her Charter school or any other schools before, but when the team arrived at the other team’s school, Najah was pulled to the side.

The Aqeel Family

Before the teams could even start the game, Najah and her assistant coach were pulled to the side by the referee. They were told that Najah was in violation of a rule that no one had ever heard of before.

George Walker IV – Nashville Tennessean

The rule was unfortunately not made up by the referee. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), athletes are required to dress a certain way, but this goes beyond wearing an official uniform.

The rule specifically prohibits any headwear or accessories beyond a certain size, but it generally discriminates against Muslim women. Because the referee decided to enforce the unnecessary rule, Najah needed “special permission” to play. Because of the last minute notice, she had to sit on the bench.

George Walker IV – Nashville Tennessean

Najah broke out in tears, but not because she had been hurt. No, she was furious. Her mother, Aliya Aqeel watched as her daughter was humiliated by the referee, unable to do anything to help. From that point forward, they joined the fight in safeguarding religious freedom for all athletes.

Volleyball Alberta / Twitteer

This is not the first time this has happened. Discrimination against Muslim women in sports has been going on for years, and most likely for other religious athletes as well. With the battle for equality raging, many have become involved to speak out against the injustice.

Two years ago, in 2018, another Muslim student athlete was disqualified from competition — after she had already competed. Noor Alexandria Abukaram was a track athlete at the time; in fact, she was one of the best. The Ohio teen experienced the same discrimination that Najah faced in Tennessee.

Noor Alexandria Abukaram

Noor was more than ready for her race that day, and she wowed the audience with her personal best time, hijab and all. That didn’t stop officials from butting in and disqualifying Noor for wearing her hijab. The rule has done more than just push young athletes away from their sport, it has ruined careers.

Noor Alexandria Abukaram

College basketball player Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir was a big star in her league. She had been playing since was a kid, and even back then she was breaking boundaries for Muslim women within her own religious community.

Alchetron

Even in Muslim communities, there can be terrible pressure for Muslim girls. Boys and girls are discouraged to behave in certain ways, so when Bilqis started playing basketball, it shook up more than the court.

The pressure and judgement from those in her community didn’t stop Bilqis from following her passion, and more than that, she felt it was her calling from God. She had a strong answer to her critics.

Mike Coppola / Getty Images

In regards to all the opposition, Bilqis says “[T]hat’s not what our religion teaches. God blessed me with the talent, why not use it?” She moved forward, playing throughout high school and college, making records at a young age. She was shooting for the moon, but didn’t know she’d be shot out of the sky.

At the end of her college career, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir was heading to pro-stardom in Europe, but another set of rules restricted her because of her hijab. Like Najah, Noor, and other Muslim female athletes, Bilqis had to choose between her faith and her sport.

Olivia Lace-Evans

In the end, Bilqis said goodbye to her dreams and stopped playing professional basketball, but she didn’t give up. Bilqis not only coaches young girls basketball, she has also become one of the many advocates to fight against religious discrimination.

Leila Fadel / NPR

Bilqis wants to ensure that what happened to her does not happen to anyone else, but when she heard about Najah Aqeel it brought back painful memories. As proud as Bilqis is to support and advocate for her cause, she knows there is still much more to be done.

ISNA Convention

In Ohio, the State Senate passed a bill to allow student religious expression in extracurricular activities. As great as that is for athletes in Ohio, including Noor Alexandria Abukaram, states across the U.S. still have not followed in suit. Not to mention, professional athletes are still left unrepresented.

NOOR ALEXANDRIA ABUKARAM

Groups have banded together to fight against the discrimination, including Najah Aqeel’s school. Officials from Valor College Academies are pushing for the National Federation of State High School Associations and the TSSAA (Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association) to change the rule.

TSSAA

The prep school’s director of sports also shared a statement exclaiming their disappointment. The statement says, “we were not aware of this rule or previously informed of this rule in our 3 years as a TSSAA member school. We are also frustrated that this rule has been selectively enforced…”

History has shown that change is possible, although at a very slow pace. In 2017, the International Basketball Federation overturned its long-criticized ban on religious headwear, including the hijab, after a great deal of scrutiny. Though this adjustment came too late for Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, it pushed forward much-needed change.

Changes on this level opens the door for more change and more conversation. Slowly we’ve seen historical progression in more well-known areas, including retail companies. That could be a huge turning point for younger athletes like Najah.

Big sport retailers have jumped in on the positive change. Nike was the first to start their own line of sport hijabs, complete with breathable fabric, for female athletes. It’s vital that these champions stick together, for arcane clothing rules are actually hurting athletic women of all backgrounds.

Nike

For instance, Jessica Anderson of London, England, is kind of a superhero. The nurse saves lives daily at the Royal London Hospital, and her other power is super speed. She runs circles around pretty much anyone (okay, maybe not Usain Bolt).

@janderzzz / Instagram

Knowing full well that her running abilities were next-level, Jessica made it her mission to run the London Marathon in 2019. And because saving lives is kind of her thing, she vowed to compete on behalf of a charity.

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Jessica pledged to run for Barts Charity, which “supports the hospitals of Barts Health NHS Trust” and “funds extraordinary healthcare to help patients and staff,” according to its website. The organization held a special place in her heart.

@janderzzz / Instagram

“I’m fundraising for Barts Charity to support the work of the wonderful staff on the Acute Admissions Unit at the Royal London Hospital, where I have worked for nearly seven years,” she proudly wrote on the social media platform dedicated to giving, appropriately called JustGiving.

@janderzzz / Instagram

“We have previously used the charity fund to buy equipment for the ward such as dementia-friendly clocks and signage, a bladder scanner and some furnishings for the staff room and day rooms,” she explained in her post.

@Barts_Charity / Twitter

Jessica wanted to represent her healthcare background during the marathon in yet another way, so she pledged to run the 2019 London Marathon in her nurse’s uniform. She had a particular record in mind.

@janderzzz / Instagram

“I will be attempting to break the record for the fastest marathon in a nurse’s uniform by a female runner!” Jessica announced online. The time to beat for a full 26.2 mile race was three hours, eight minutes, and 54 seconds. Though that’s pretty darn zippy, Jessica wasn’t intimidated.

@janderzzz / Instagram

So Jessica sent an application to Guinness World Records prior to the race, only to be met with disappointment. “Unfortunately, Guinness World Records has not accepted my application, as they said my uniform does not comply with their ‘criteria’ of what a nurse wears,” she wrote. 

@janderzzz / Instagram

What did that mean exactly? The RN wore her scrubs to work every single day, all while saving lives and taking names. Guinness World Records, however, wrote that her nurse’s uniform too closely resembled a doctor’s uniform, therefore making her ineligible.

@janderzzz / Instagram

See, the original record was set by nurses wearing dresses. But nurses haven’t worn dress uniforms since around the ’80s, though some wore the nurse pantsuit in the ’70s. Guiness World Record reps told Jessica that, although outdated, the uniform guidelines were necessary.

The Imperial War Museum

But because Jessica was a proud, empowered nurse, she didn’t listen. She ran the London marathon as she intended: in her royal blue scrubs. Crossing the finish line with a smile, she looked for her time on the clock.

Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

She beat the record! After crossing the finish line at a record time of three hours, eight minutes, and 22 seconds, Jessica posted about her victory on Instagram, making sure to call out Guinness World Records in her announcement.

Eric Tolentino

After thanking friends, family, and running buddies for their undying support, she wrote “Ps. @guinnessworldrecords this is what the fastest female marathon runner in a nurse’s uniform ACTUALLY looks like (3.08.22).” Go Jessica!

@janderzzz / Instagram

After Jessica spoke to several media outlets about her predicament, her story went viral, and internet users around the world took her side. Specifically, Jessica spoke with Runners World magazine about her feelings regarding Guinness World Records’ stance.

@janderzzz / Instagram

“The exact wording of the title was ‘fastest marathon in a nurse’s uniform,’ and I took that literally. I thought it should be treated the same as an attempt for fastest marathon in a fireman’s uniform,” Jessica stated.

@janderzzz / Instagram

“I’m sure Guinness World Records don’t intend to cause offense but it would be nice if they decided to revise their criteria instead of reinforcing old gender stereotypes,” she continued.

@janderzzz / Instagram

Her righteous internet supporters started a viral hashtag, #WhatNursesWear, which inevitably had Guinness World Records reps feeling like they made a big mistake.

Cooper University Hospital

Guinness’ senior vice president, Samantha Fay, then made a public statement admitting, “It has become quite clear to Guinness World Records that our guidelines for the fastest marathon wearing a nurse’s uniform were outdated, incorrect and reflected a stereotype we do not in any way wish to perpetuate.”

Derek Berwin / Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

“We have taken the decision to no longer allow fancy dress clothing for this category and will introduce guidelines which reflect the clothes worn by nurses in the UK and around the world,” she continued.

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Incredibly, Guinness World Records awarded Jessica with the world record she earned! The outspoken healthcare worker emerged as a role model to girls and women everywhere, and other athletes joined her fight — even those who were constantly underestimated.

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There are plenty of athletic kids out there, but Jessica would have agreed that Winter Vinecki was something special. While all of her friends were playing inside, Winter was out on her bike or on foot, training for her next big race.

Team Winter / Facebook

By the age of five, Winter was already competing in adult marathons, and by nine she was ready to test her limits in her first Olympic-distance race. Many believed that Winter was too young to compete — until she finished the marathon in just four hours.

Staying healthy and pushing herself past her limits were always the driving factors behind Winter’s desire to compete, and through her success she hoped to inspire other kids to do the same. But all that changed in 2009 when tragedy befell Winter and her family.

Just ten short months after his diagnosis, Winter’s father, Michael, passed away from prostate cancer. Winter was heartbroken over the loss of her father, but instead of letting her sadness consume her she decided to transform her grief into something truly incredible.

ESPN

With the help of her family, the young runner founded Team Winter, a non-profit dedicated to raising funds for prostate cancer research and awareness. She began actively touring the U.S. on behalf of this mission, speaking in front of large crowds in memory of her father.

Winter Vinecki

Winter even worked to promote her foundation while training and competing in her races. Rain or shine, she could be always found at her Team Winter booth before every marathon, promoting her cause as furiously as she raced.

Winter Vinecki

As the years went on, Winter found great success in both of these areas of her life, becoming a back-to-back IronKids National Triathlon champion in 2010 and 2011 and raising over $400k toward prostate cancer research. Yet even with so much accomplished, Winter was still dreaming bigger.

In early 2012, Winter decided to honor her father’s memory in the only way she knew how — by running. And it wouldn’t be just one marathon: it’d be seven — one on every continent on Earth!

Park Record

The prospect of running a full marathon on all seven continents was surely a difficult one, and even some of the world’s most experienced runners wouldn’t dare perform such a feat. But with Michael’s memory fueling her, Winter was confident she would succeed — and do it all before her 15th birthday.

ESPN

“My goal is to be the youngest person in the world to complete a marathon on every continent before I turn 15, to honor not only my dad but the one in six men affected by prostate cancer,” Winter told CNN.

Winter Vinecki

And so, in April 2012, Winter took the first step on her seven-continent journey by competing in Oregon’s Eugene Marathon. She placed fourth in her age group with a time of 3:45:04, which would stand as her fastest marathon time to date.

Team Winter / Facebook

Next came Africa, where she participated in the Amazing Maasai Marathon in Kenya, just miles from Lake Victoria. And while Winter had run on treacherous terrain before, she admitted to needing a little extra encouragement in order to conquer the hilly landscape.

Team Winter / Facebook

“One of my favorite memories from Kenya was when I was running up the steepest hill and these two little boys, maybe around 6 years old, started running beside me,” Winter told Statesman Journal. “It was that extra motivation I needed to get up the hill and finish the race.”

Team Winter / Facebook

Winter went on to place third in the marathon, though she had little time to rest before the third leg of her journey. Sure, the transition from Oregon to Kenya was no walk in the park, but no amount of training could truly prepare her for what came next: Antarctica.

Team Winter / Facebook

The 2013 Antarctica Marathon saw Winter run 26.2 miles across the frigid, icy landscape of the Antarctic continent. Even after slipping on a patch of ice, Winter finished third in the women’s competition and became the youngest person to ever complete a marathon on Antarctica.

The Huffington Post

Winter was almost halfway to her goal, but through all the joys and struggles of her mission, she never lost sight of why she was running in the first place. And no matter how far from home her journey took her, she knew that her father was always running beside her.

The Clymb

“The main goal is to take my dad to the places he never got to go and also to spread prostate cancer awareness,” said Winter. “I plan on showing my dad all these amazing places he never got to see. He is with me wherever I go, and you can bet he is by my side every step of the way as I conquer every continent, 26.2 miles at a time.”

Winter Vinecki / Facebook

Next up for Winter was South America’s Inca Trail Marathon, known by many as one of the toughest in the world. The trail – which ends in the legendary lost city of Machu Picchu – typically takes three days to hike. Winter did it in less than one.

Statesman Journal

After navigating a 13,000-foot mountain pass through rain and snow and dodging all manner of local wildlife, Winter finished the race in just 9 hours, placing first overall for the first time on her journey. The win felt good, but Winter knew she couldn’t stop now.

Statesman Journal

A plane ride halfway across the globe set the stage for Winter’s next race, which was the Sunrise to Sunset Marathon in Mongolia. Traversing perilous mountain peaks, dense woodlands, and windswept valleys, Winter finished the marathon in second place.

Statesman Journal

The sixth stop on her journey was Australia, but unfortunately for Winter, there were no marathons being held that allowed a 14-year-old to compete. She looked to New Zealand for a remedy, and after running in the Wharf to Wharf marathon, she officially checked Oceania off her list.

Team Winter / Facebook

By this time, the months of nonstop travel and training began to take a toll on Winter’s physical and mental health. But with her goal of completing a marathon on every continent just within reach, Winter wasn’t ready to give up.

Team Winter / Facebook

“The travel has been the hardest thing and that makes the whole thing pretty tiring and hard to keep up with the training but I can’t complain, it has been an incredible journey,” Winter told NZ Herald. “It will be a surreal feeling when it is all over with my last marathon in Athens.”

Team Winter / Facebook

At last, in November 2013, Winter arrived in Athens to compete in her final race, the Athens Classic Marathon. The tour traced the original run of Pheidippides, the legendary courier who inspired the concept of the marathon.

Statesman Journal

With a time of 4:03:53, Winter crossed the finish line and officially became the youngest person in the world to complete a marathon on all seven continents. As Winter basked in the pride of her accomplishment, she raised a finger skyward and exclaimed, “this is for you, Dad!”

Statesman Journal

Michael had no doubt been by his daughter’s side throughout her journey, but there was also another that ran beside Winter: her mother. From Oregon to Athens, Winter’s mother, Dawn, had run every single race alongside her, making them the first mother-daughter duo to complete the feat as well.

Statesman Journal

A runner herself, Dawn’s mission was more than just about breaking records: it was about empathizing with her daughter. After all, while Winter may have lost a father, Dawn had lost her husband and best friend.

Statesman Journal

“I also want to show her that I, too, could do anything I put my mind to and that I can be a full-time mom, a full-time dad, a full-time physician and still train and run seven marathons in 18 months at age 45,” Dawn told Yahoo! News.

Outside Online

It was now late 2013, and Winter, having officially completed her goal and taken her place in the record books, was finally free to return to a normal life. But Winter, as we know, was anything but normal, and the end to this adventure opened the door for her to pursue her second passion: aerial skiing.

Winter Vinecki / Facebook

With her childhood spent between Michigan and Oregon, taking up skiing seemed a natural next step for young Winter, who at age four strapped on her first pair of skis. Her time on the slopes was casual at first, but in 2011 she began training professionally after Olympic aerialist Emily Cook encouraged her to do so.

Winter Vinecki

“Skiing is a huge part of our family, and I’ve always had a love for it. I don’t want to get burned out on running and think it’s good to cross train, so when I got the opportunity to do aerial freestyle skiing, I took it,” Winter told Statesman Journal.

Winter Vinecki / Facebook

Amazingly, Winter was as good a skier as she was a runner, and at one point she even qualified for the FIS Junior World Ski Championships and the Sprint Freestyle U.S. Championships. However, the tournaments were scheduled during her marathon tour and she was forced to give up her spots.

Winter Vinecki / Facebook

Now that her seven-continent journey was behind her, Winter set her sights on the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. And after only a few years spent with the U.S. Freestyle Junior Worlds Team, 19-year-old Winter was named to the U.S. Olympic Ski team. But her Olympic dreams were not to be.

Winter Vinecki / Facebook

During a qualifying run, Winter tore her ACL and was forced to withdraw from PyeongChang. She continues to recover from her injury and hopes to compete in the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Winter Vinecki / Facebook

“My timeline has now changed, but my goals have not,” the iron girl wrote in a social media post addressing her injury. “So, it’s not over. Stay tuned and never give in.”

Winter Vinecki / Facebook