Swimming is the reason Yusra Mardini is still alive. To her, qualifying for the Rio Olympics is so much more than a sporting achievement.
The 18-year-old had been swimming since she was three years old before the Syrian civil war broke out. Suddenly even her home wasn’t safe anymore, let alone her local swimming pool in Damascus—it had been ripped apart by bombs. For the daughter of a swimming coach, not being able to swim was torture. It was just one more reason for her and her sister, Sarah, to flee.
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The UN estimates 400,000 people have died in the war since 2011, and Mardini knew she had to go. But as for so many, the decision to leave was almost as dangerous as the choice to stay.
The swim of her life
The two sisters left on August 12th 2015, spending 25 days traveling through surrounding countries in the company of armed people smugglers.
They made it to Turkey and convinced one of the smugglers to take them across the Mediterranean. But along the way, the dinghy they were in broke down.
There were 15 people on board and many couldn't swim. She jumped into the water with her sister, and together they swam—and dragged the boat to shores of Greece.
Then, the pair continued the rest of their 1609km journey to Germany on foot.
Competing as a refugee
In March this year, the International Olympic Committee announced there would be a team of refugees at the games in Rio, to send "a message of hope for all the refugees in our world". And Mardini made the shortlist.
In 10 days, she will compete in the 200m freestyle event in Rio. She is hoping that swimming will bring her glory. But back in that moment, all she wanted was a chance to survive.
“I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea, because I am a swimmer,” she said. The lead-up to her event been tough, she says. Tougher than most people’s journeys to the Olympics.
But to her, competing is about so much more than just the sport. She wants to inspire hundreds of thousands of refugees around the world.
"It's not that I have to help, but that deep in my heart I want to help refugees,” she says.
Swimming saved her life. And when she competes in August, she wants to show others that dreams are still possible, even when staying at home is not.
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