Amaiya Zafar no longer will have to choose between her religion or the boxing ring.
The 16-year-old from Oakdale, who is Muslim, recently won a battle that will allow her to wear a hijab and fully cover her arms and legs while boxing. That means she can put on her boxing gloves later this month to fight her first sanctioned match.
A new USA Boxing exemption means Zafar can adhere to her religious beliefs rather than to a mandate that she wear a sleeveless jersey and shorts that can't go below the knees.
"This is a big step," her coach, Nathaniel Haile, said Thursday. "She's put a lot of labor into this. She earned the right to showcase her skills, and I'm happy for her. But it's just the first step in letting her achieve her dreams."
Zafar has her sights set on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. To get there, she'd have to persuade the international boxing organization — the AIBA — to allow her to box in her modest attire.
For now, her right to wear the scarf is only with USA Boxing.
Now Zafar will have the opportunity to fight in local matches and many tournaments throughout the country, Haile said.
Zafar is relieved she can finally compete. "I'm ready," she said Thursday with the confidence of an athlete who has trained for three years.
Over the past couple of years, she thought she was close to jumping into competition. Last fall, she flew to Florida and weighed in for her fight. But before she got her gloves on, officials informed her that she couldn't wear her hijab, leggings or long sleeves, and she left.
"You get so invested. My weight is in the right place. My head is in the game," she said. To be turned away — "it's exhausting," she said.
But on April 29, the 5-foot-1, 116-pound teen expects to face off with a girl from Iowa in a Circle of Discipline at the Spring Fling Amateur Boxing match at the Richard R. Green Central Park School in Minneapolis.
Her mother, Sarah O'Keefe, is more excited than nervous, pointing to her daughter's training and skills. "[Amaiya] has wanted this for so long," O'Keefe said.
No matter the outcome of the fight, Zafar already has won fans, inspiring other girls to box, including two Muslim teens, her coach said.
Zafar's fight to change the rules wasn't just about her, Haile said. "She fought for other Muslim youths."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788