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The Extraordinary Story Of The 18-Year-Old Olympian Who Swam Free From Syria

The Extraordinary Story Of The 18-Year-Old Olympian Who Swam Free From Syria
By Gavan Casey Updated

Two months ago today, the International Olympic Committee announced their 10-person refugee team for this summer's games in Rio - a proposal mooted as far back as last October.

Amongst those headed to the 2016 Olympics will be teen swimmer Yusra Mardini of Syria, whose remarkable backstory will likely be relayed by various broadcasters and publications throughout the Games.

Growing up in Damascus, Mardini trained in swimming with the support of the Syrian Olympic Committee. In 2012, aged 14, she represented her country of birth in the 2012 FINA World Swimming Championships, partaking in the 200 metre individual medley, 200 metre freestyle and 400 metre freestyle events.

Mardini's house was destroyed during armed conflict in her hometown, and in August 2015 she and her sister opted to leave their native land once and for all. They fled war-torn Damascus for Beirut, Istanbul and finally Izmir in Turkey, where they managed to squeeze on board a dinghy containing 18 fellow migrants who aimed to cross the Mediterranean to the Greek island of Lesbos.

30 minutes into their journey, however, the dinghy - designed to hold no more than seven people - began to take on water and was in serious danger of capsizing. Only three passengers were able to swim: the 17-year-old Mardini, her sister, and one other man. They duly hopped in the water and began pushing the dinghy in the direction of their destination - kicking so hard that they eventually lost their shoes.

I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea, because I am a swimmer,

Mardini told a Berlin press conference back in March.


I wasn't going to sit there and complain that I would drown. If I was going to drown, at least I'd drown proud of myself and my sister. It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned. There were people who didn't know how to swim.

Incredibly, Mardini, her sister and their fellow human propeller guided the dinghy to the shores of Lesbos, with all 20 escapees surviving the 120 kilometre journey across the Aegean Sea.

The Mardini sisters arrived in Berlin a month later, meeting an Egyptian translator at their accommodation who put them in contact with Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 - one of the German capital's oldest swimming clubs.


Coach Sven Spannekrebs believed almost instantly that Mardini was good enough to represent the club's swimming team. However, as he told reporters in March, over the course of the following five months Mardini progressed far more rapidly than expected, and the club started to talk about whether she could be a candidate for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the turn of this year, however, the Syrian had already developed into a legitimate prospect for Rio 2016.

A lot of people could take her as a role model. Yusra is very focused. She has clear goals and organises her life around them,

said Spannekrebs.


He noted that Mardini's organisational ability was almost German-like, which, according to The Guardian, was something the swimmer denied with a vigorous shake of her head, rebuking:

We are like that in Syria!

Mardini was speaking after being nominated as a candidate for the IOC's newly-formed refugee team which was set to make its debut and shine a light on the global refugee crisis in Rio - a tantalising prospect which the 18-year-old described to ABC in the States in this short video feature.


I want all refugees to be proud of me, I want to encourage them that even if we are not in our homeland and had a tough way that we can still do great things,

Mardini said, looking every bit at ease in front of dozens of cameras and reporters. Later, during a break in training at her swimming club, she told Reuters:


It is hard to leave your home. Very hard. Our house was destroyed, we did not have anything any more and we ran away.

I want to go to the Olympics. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

Fast forward to the present day, and Mardini has now had her dream confirmed. She will partake in her first Olympic Games, with the swimming events scheduled to take place 12 months after she swam for her life in search of better opportunities.



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