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Yusra Mardini delights with butterfly heat win for Refugee Olympic Team

posted on: Aug 8, 2016

Robert Kitson

The Guardian

There will be plenty of inspiring swims in the Rio pool this week but few to match the personal odyssey completed by Yusra Mardini on the opening day of competition. Last year the Syrian teenager was battling in the sea for survival with fellow asylum seekers while trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos. To go from there to winning the opening heat of the 100m butterfly at the Olympic Games is the ultimate illustration of drawing strength from adversity.

For those minded to complain about minor irritations in Rio such as humidity in the aquatics centre or a few nibbling insects, the 18-year-old’s story should serve as a timely reminder of life’s more pressing issues. Last summer Mardini and her sister Sarah fled their home in Damascus for Beirut, Istanbul and finally Izmir in Turkey, where they managed to squeeze on to a dinghy crossing the Mediterranean. Thirty minutes into their journey the motor stopped and the overcrowded boat, carrying 20 people, threatened to capsize.

There was no option but for Yusra, Sarah and another woman to enter the water and push and drag the dinghy towards the shore. They were the only ones on board who could swim. “I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea, because I am a swimmer,” Mardini said last week. The proximity of the open ocean off Rio might have stirred some uncomfortable flashbacks.

All of which made her first Olympic experience such a momentous one. The venue may have been far from full and her heat loaded with competitors entertaining nil hope of reaching the final but Mardini was the most popular of winners in a time of 1min 9.21sec, just over a second faster than her nearest heat rival. Afterwards she could scarcely contain her joy: “Everything was amazing. It was the only thing I ever wanted was to compete in the Olympics. I had a good feeling in the water. Competing with all these great champions is exciting. I’ve only been back swimming for two years so we’re only now getting back to my levels of before.”

Now living and training in Germany, Mardini is competing in Brazil under the banner of the specially-formed refugee team made up of 43 athletes who have been forced to flee their homelands. Unlike some competitors she also attended the opening ceremony and has been determined to enjoy her Olympic experience to the full: “The ceremony was really amazing but I couldn’t stay because I had to race.”

For her next trick Mardini hopes to be back for the 2020 Games in Japan but has already made good on her personal pre-Olympic pledge. “I want to make all the refugees proud of me. It would show that, even if we had a tough journey, we can achieve something.” It is the kind of narrative from which everyone on Earth can draw strength.