Meet Yusra Mardini, the Hero Syrian Refugee Competing at the Rio Olympics

Meet Yusra Mardini, the Hero Syrian Refugee Competing at the Rio Olympics

On Saturday, Yusra Mardini swam to victory during her first heat for the women's 100-meter butterfly swimming competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It was a historic first win for the Refugee Olympic Team, the first-ever team of its kind to compete in an Olympic Games.

But the victory also marks a sharp contrast from Mardini's life just one year earlier, when the stakes for swimming long distances looked less like gold, silver and bronze and more like life and death.

In 2015, Mardini fled Syria in the midst of a civil war that was being waged in the streets and suburbs of Damascus, where she had grown up. 

From the time that she was 3 years old, her father, a swimming instructor, trained her personally in a pool near their home in Syria. Then the war began in 2011, when Mardini was 13. 

In the beginning of the war, she told the New York Times, everyone was worried, but as the years passed and the violence intensified, friends and neighbors became resolved to the idea that they might not survive the rebellion, and tried to carry on normal lives.

"...after a few years, we were like: 'O.K., if I'm going to die, I'm going to die! But let me live my life. I want to see my friends!'" Mardini told the Times.

After the roof of the swimming center where she had once trained was destroyed by a bomb, she begged her parents to let her try to escape the country. Eventually they relented, and she and her sister set off for Europe with two family members and a friend. At every step of the way, terror and heartbreak plagued them.

When the engine cut out on the small boat they were using to cross the Mediterranean Sea, Mardini and her sister lept into the water to try to push it to shore. Two young men attempted to help them but grew tired quickly, so the Mardini sisters swam for three-and-a-half hours on their own and eventually the boat reached the shore.

"I'm thinking, what? I'm a swimmer, and I'm going to die in the water in the end?" she said.

Eventually, the girls made it to their final destination, Germany, where they have been granted temporary asylum. Their parents and two younger sisters have since joined them, and Mardini is competing on the elite squad of refugees in the 2016 Olympics.

She told the Times that she is "...expecting personal best," at Rio, since two years without training have left her well behind the official Olympic qualifying times for the 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly.

But her real victory at the Rio Olympics, she says, will be having the chance to share her story in Syria, where she hopes to return someday to help out other refugees like herself.

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