The teenage swimmer used her talent and risked her life to help save the lives of 19 others ……
Almost every athlete at the 2016 Olympic Games will have an interesting backstory, but Yusra Mardini’s is more extraordinary than most.
Mardini is in Rio to represent a team of 10 refugee Olympic athletes.
While any other 18-year-old’s biggest achievements may be confined to the A-level results they leave school with, Mardini’s is almost incomprehensible.
She and her sister are responsible for helping to save the lives of 20 people, including their own, after jumping off their sinking dinghy into the Aegean Sea and pushing their boat to land.
Mardini, who now lives in Berlin, will compete in the women’s 100-metre butterfly and freestyle heats on Saturday and Wednesday. Her appearance is being touted as one of the most highly anticipated of the Games.
Mardini was a talented swimmer in war-torn Damascus and professionally backed by the Syrian Olympic Committee. As unrest in the besieged country escalated, she would often find herself training in pools where roofs had been blown open by bombings. “Sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war,” she said. “And sometimes you would be swimming in pools where the roofs were [blown open] in three or four places.”
Damascus became increasingly unstable and Mardini and her sister Sarah eventually left Syria, travelling through Lebanon and Turkey before trying to reach Greece.
Thirty minutes after setting off from Turkey, the motor on their boat, which was meant for six people but carrying 20, began to fail. Most of those on board it could not swim. With no other alternative, Mardini, Sarah and two strong swimmers jumped into the sea and swam for three hours in open water to stop their dinghy from capsizing, eventually reaching Lesbos.
“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.”
But while she now hates open water, the memory is not a nightmare for her. “I remember that without swimming I would never be alive maybe because of the story of this boat. It’s a positive memory for me.”
After Lesbos, Mardini and Sarah travelled through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria before arriving at their final destination: Germany.
Mardini is equally remarkable for her self-effacing attitude and resilience as she is for her life-saving act. “It’s tough,” she has said. “It was really hard, for everyone, and I don’t blame anyone if they cried. But sometimes you just have to move on.”