Being an Olympian isn't the first remarkable thing this teenager has done.
Yusra Mardini. Many have not heard of her for two reasons: She was a member of one of the smallest Olympic teams this year and she did not advance in her two swimming events. But being an Olympian isn’t the first remarkable thing this young woman has done.
Mardini was a member of the Refugee Olympic Team, a special team created this year as the International Olympic Committee recognized that outstanding global circumstances have caused many to flee their countries and be without a home. The IOC chose 10 refugees to participate in different sports in order to include those displaced by civil wars, such as those in Syria and South Sudan.
The 18-year-old swimmer lived in the war-torn city of Damascus in Syria and was professionally-backed by the Syrian Olympic Committee before it became too dangerous for her and her sister to live there. She remembers what training was like before she left:
“Sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war. And sometimes you would be swimming in pools where the roofs were [blown open] in three or four places.”
Mardini fled with her sister through Lebanon and Turkey, and they decided to endure the often deadly boat trip from Turkey to Greece. These are perilous excursions, as the boats are often overcrowded and capsize. Even if it’s at normal capacity, the boat is likely to meet unpredictable weather in the Aegean Sea that could toss them over.
Just thirty minutes into their boat trip to Greece the motor failed and Mardini and the 20 others on the boat were stalled and at the mercy of the sea. Mardini said that she, her sister, who is also a swimmer, and two others jumped into the water to push the boat along and keep it from capsizing.
“We were the only four who knew how to swim,” she said of the experience. “I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that.”
Though she didn’t advance in the games this year, there’s hope that in her new home in Berlin, Germany, she can continue to train and participate in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Mardini explained her situation in a press conference:
“I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go.”
She doesn’t plan on returning to Syria anytime soon, or perhaps not even after the war has settled, but she does hope to take her stories of war and triumph back with her when she’s older to share with others.
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