You should know the name Yusra Mardini. The 23-year-old is not only impressing in the Tokyo Olympics, but has a seriously awe-inspiring backstory that spans different oceans and continents.
Yusra, who is originally from Syria, came third in the Women’s 100m over the weekend, representing a fairly new group – the Refugee Olympic Team.
Made up of 11 athletes who now live and train in 13 host countries, this team has been around since the 2016 Olympics in Rio, which was Yusra’s first time competing as a swimmer.
Her prowess in the pool was inspired by her dad, who was also a swimmer for the Syrian Olympic team, and raised both of his daughters to love the water. But their training came to a halt when the family were stopped from going to the pool, with dad Ezzat being arrested and beaten up by regime soldiers.
Despite wanting to stay in their home in Damascus, the war in Syria encroached on their lives until the family had no choice but to make plans to leave.
In 2015, the then 17-year-old and her sister Sarah were told to leave as it was impossible for the whole family to escape together. Yusra’s parents knew people who could get the sisters to Turkey and help them kickstart their new lives.
The journey was a treacherous one.
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Look at her go
Ezzat had trained his daughters to be the best swimmers “on earth” and their skills were tested as they had to rescue a migrant boat by swimming it to safety.
Just after Yusra and Sarah had got on a dingy that smugglers had arranged, it started to sink, threatening the lives of the 20 people on board. The boat had been designed to fit only seven.
“What were we going to do? Let everyone drown? We were pulling and swimming for their lives,”
– Yusra Mardini
The sisters instinctively took to the freezing waters to keep the boat afloat, helped by two other refugees. The group swam for over three hours, towing the boat with rope towards the island of Lesbos in Greece.
“We used our legs and one arm each – we held the rope with the other and kicked and kicked. Waves kept coming and hitting me in the eye,” Yusra told Vogue in an interview.
“That was the hardest part—the stinging of the salt water. But what were we going to do? Let everyone drown? We were pulling and swimming for their lives.”
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Yusra has had a long, difficult journey to get here
Their journey didn’t stop there – the sisters then walked from Greece to Germany on foot, before eventually finding a refugee camp in Berlin.
It was here Yusra got back into a swimming pool. After hearing about a club training young athletes, she joined the team and a trainer helped the sisters get papers to stay in Germany.
Yusra now proudly represents the refugee team and became the youngest Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
While Yusra won’t progress to the next stages of the Butterfly competition, she is proud of her work.
“I am so proud of the fact that I am representing 80 million refugees around the world knowing I am sending a message of hope to all of them doing what I love, also showing the world that refugees won’t give up easy and will keep on dreaming even after going through tough journeys,” she wrote on Instagram.
“As for my race, I didn’t swim the time I hoped for but my journey isn’t over.”