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One year ago, Yusra Mardini pushed a sinking dinghy filled with
refugees through the frigid Aegean Sea for over three hours — today,
the 18-year-old Syrian swimmer is heading to the Rio Olympics to
compete in two women’s swimming events! Yusra is one of ten
athletes selected for a special Olympic Refugee Team, which will
compete under the Olympic flag and represent the more than 60 million
refugees around the world today. Not only will the young athlete be
fulfilling the dream of a lifetime to compete at the Olympic Games,
Yusra also sees it as an opportunity to inspire those left behind in her
war-torn homeland: “I want them to not give up,” she says. “I want
everyone to think of their dreams because a lot of people there forgot
their dreams. A lot of things happened, and it was really bad… We
motivate ourselves because there are a lot of people who (expect) a lot
from us. A lot of people have hopes in us, and we can’t let them
A swimmer from the age of three, Yusra was beginning to train
seriously with the support of the Syrian Olympic Committee when the
civil war broke out nearly five years ago and she went from being a
typical teenager to living in a war zone. Her family’s home and the
swimming facility where she trained were both destroyed by bombs. As
conditions continued to deteriorate and everyday life became a
constant struggle, she realized she had to escape. “Maybe I’m going
to die on the way,” she remembers thinking. “But I’m almost dead in
my country… I could not take it anymore.”
Last August, she and her older sister Sarah said goodbye to their
family and set out on a dangerous 25-day journey from Syria to
Germany. In the midst of the journey, she found herself packed on a
dinghy designed to carry six with 19 other people. Within thirty
minutes of leaving Turkey, the motor stopped working and the boat
began to take on water. Yusra and her sister, along with two other
swimmers, jumped into the water to push it toward the Greek island of
Lesbos. Even after the two older male swimmers gave up, the two
young women continued to swim for three and a half hours. Thanks to
their efforts, everyone made it safely ashore but Yusra says that the
experience was grueling and the sight of the sea makes her feel faint
even now: “It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is
almost like… done. I don’t know if I can describe that.”
After making her way to Berlin, Yusra settled briefly in a refugee camp,
which referred her to one of the city’s swimming clubs. Coach Sven
Spannerkrebs was so impressed by Yusra that he began training her
with the goal of making it to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Then the IOC
announced the refugee team, giving her an unexpected opportunity to
compete this year — and to tackle stereotypes about what being a
refugee means. “A lot of people think refugees had no home, that they
had nothing at all,” she says. “No, we had everything like you.” Her
parents and younger sister have now joined the young women in
Berlin, and the whole family is thrilled that Yusra has this chance to
compete. “It’s a dream come true,” says Yusra, who will swim in the
100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly. “The Olympics is
everything, it’s a life chance… [Swimming is] my passion, it’s my life,
you can’t explain. It’s the most important thing in my life. It’s in my
heart and I want to achieve something in it.”
Congratulations to Yusra for making the team and good luck at the
By Ben Carson



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