Yusra Mardini, an Olympic Swimmer in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, is a fighter–and it’s not just because she’s been tirelessly training since October. It’s because of how she came to be here.
Mardini has been training at the training center for Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, which is a pool that was built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics. This fact in itself is a metaphor for her life: she triumphs–and makes something beautiful–out of something grotesque.
You see, Mardini is a refugee. For the first time this year, the Olympics has a refugee team on which she’ll be competing. Mardini will compete in the 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly. Only a year ago, however, she was in the Mediterranean Sea swimming to save own her life–and the lives of her sister and many others.
So, what exactly happened? It all started in 2011 when the war in Syria broke out–she was only 13. A year later, their family home was destroyed the Daraya massacre. Even still, in 2012, she represented Syria in the 2012 FINA World Swimming Championships 200 meter individual medley, 200 meter freestyle, and 400 meter freestyle events.
Then, last summer, Mardini and her sister Sarah left war-ridden Syria and found themselves on a tumultuous journey for a month, where they traveled through Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, the Balkans, Central Europe, and finally, to Germany. As if that wasn’t hard enough, their packed dinghy broke down between Turkey and Greece, which is when she and her sister jumped into the water and helped guide the boat to safety.
When they were on a boat headed to the Greek island Lesbos from Turkey, they were caught by border agents and sent back. On their second try, the engine died. Out of the 20 people on board, only the Mardini sisters and two men knew how to swim, so the four of them jumped overboard.
This meant Mardini and her sister swam for three and a half hours, while also helping the boat stay on course. Mardini couldn’t help but think how she could die out in the water, which she told the Times:
“I’m thinking, what? I’m a swimmer, and I’m going to die in the water in the end?”
So yeah, that’s pretty intense. Fortunately, the boat made it to shore in Lesbos–and eventually, she made it to Germany, where she was discovered by Sven Spannekrebs, a longtime trainer for the club, who agreed to give her a tryout. Clearly, the rest is history.
What’s most amazing about her story isn’t just the fact that she’s a survivor–and a fighter–but that she also cared enough to save those 20 people on the boat. She and her sister could have left and swam to shore themselves, but they stayed behind to help others–and that is strength and compassion personified.