Almost every athlete at the 2016 Olympic Games will have an interesting backstory, but Yusra Mardini's is more extraordinary than most. Mardini, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee has now inspired the entire world winning her Olympic swimming heat on Saturday.
Mardini is one of 10 athletes selected to compete in and be a representative for first ever Olympics team composed entirely of refugees. The men and women from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Democratic Republic of the Congo received huge applause when they entered the opening ceremony on Friday.
But while the entire team has reached achievements far beyond what most can comprehend during their struggles getting to Rio, this 18-year-old’s background before the games are truly awe-inspiring and heroic.
Mardini 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. Thirty minutes after setting off from Turkey, the motor on their boat, which was meant for six people but carrying 20, began to fail. Mardini quickly realized that they all would drown if she did not take it upon herself to save their boat.
“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.”
Finally, they reached the Greek island of Lesbos, she told the UN Refugee Agency.
“It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned,” she said. “There were people who didn’t know how to swim. I wasn’t going to sit there and complain that I would drown. If was going to drown, at least I’d drown proud of myself and my sister.”
After Lesbos, Mardini and her sister travelled through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria before arriving at their final destination: Berlin, Germany.
Mardini had been a swimmer back in Syria, but when unrest settled into her home country, it became unsafe for her to continue.
“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,” she said. "So Sarah (Mardini's sister) and I decided to leave."
In Berlin, Mardini began swimming at a local sports club where she caught the eye of a coach, Sven Spannekrebs. Spannekrebs worked with Mardini day in and day out.
When the International Olympic Committee decided to field a team of refugee athletes to draw global attention to the refugee crisis, Mardini was among those who qualified — barely nine months after she first arrived in Europe.
On Saturday, Mardini won her Women’s 100 meter butterfly swimming heat, posting a time of 1:09:21.
Although her time wasn’t good enough to qualify for the semifinals, Mardini’s victory in her heat has already led people to rejoice on social media.
She says that while she now hates open water, she will always love swimming, no matter her Olympic results. “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."
Mardini is equally remarkable for her self-effacing attitude and resilience as she is for her life-saving act. “It's tough,” she said. “It was really hard, for everyone. But sometimes you just have to move on. I just want to make everyone proud, above all. I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days. I want to inspire them to do something good in their lives.”
Though she may not have won the gold, Mardini did exactly what she came to Rio to do. She became an inspiring symbol of hope, and the world could not be more proud.