Syrian Refugee Who Swam to Greece Sets Sights on Olympics

This 18-year-old’s quest—and what she has overcome—will inspire you.
Yusra Mardini after a training session at the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 training pool Olympiapark Berlin on March 9. (Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for IOC)
Mar 18, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Elizabeth Rushe is a writer and photographer from Ireland who is based in Berlin. Her work has been published by NPR, Paste Magazine, Vice, and Marie Claire.

BERLIN—When a tiny motorboat’s engine stalled in salty, cold waters just off the shore of Turkey, the fate of the 20 refugees packed on board fell into the hands of 18-year-old Syrian Yusra Mardini. She, her sister, and a family friend were the only swimmers on board the craft that was trying to make the passage to Lesbos, Greece—a dangerous trip that has claimed countless lives. As water started filling the boat, the three women jumped out and began swimming to push the boat to Greek shores. What should have been a 45-minute trip became a harrowing physical test.

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“We were [swimming] in the water for three-and-a-half hours until we got to Greece. It was really horrible,” Mardini told TakePart on Friday in Berlin. “I couldn’t see anything, I wear glasses. The trip was a straight line. We could see the island, but never reach it.”

They did eventually reach shore, and it took 25 days of chaotic travel to reach a safe haven in Germany, where she is now putting those swimming skills to a different test. Mardini is training to compete on the all-refugee team for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Her event? The 200-meter freestyle.

Mardini is in a pool of 43 elite athletes, from which five to 10 will be chosen to create a team of refugee Olympic athletes for Rio de Janeiro. In two months, she’ll find out if she makes the cut.

“Having no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic games with the Olympic flag and with the Olympic anthem. They will have a home together with all the other 11,000 athletes,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told reporters Friday.

According to Eurostat, more than 1.2 million refugees were registered in Europe in 2015, 441,800 of whom applied as first-time asylum seekers in Germany. Berlin’s allocation quota is 5.05 percent of asylum applications, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. As of January of this year, 91,000 refugees were registered in Europe.

Sports clubs around Germany are among the social outlets where refugees are being shown avenues to integration after they arrive. The clubs taking part organize games and practices at refugee camps or invite refugees to sports clubs to train. Mardini and her sister signed up as swimmers when they arrived in Germany a few months ago, and it was only a matter of time until Mardini’s technique and high standard of swimming were noticed.

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Mardini’s determination to compete in the Olympics was clear from a young age: Her father taught her how to swim at the age of three, and just a few years later, she’d already set her sights on the Olympic dream. She says she has been working toward it for the last 10 years—training even in the midst of the Syrian war, which has raged on for five years.

“After getting in the water, you could forget everything,” she said.

There is a lot that is difficult to forget. Mardini’s family home in Damascus was destroyed, and with friends and family taking flight, it was time to try and get out. Over 25 days, the two Mardini sisters made their way in a group of other refugees from Damascus through Beirut, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Vienna, Münich, and finally Berlin. The were later reunited safely in Berlin with their mother, father, and youngest sister.

Mardini celebrated her 18th birthday just 10 days ago, enjoying the day with her swim team at Wasserfreunde Spandau 04/Berlin (Wasserfreunde means “water friends” in German). Bubbly, extremely polite, and eager to oblige during a very demanding press day, she conveys a steely determination underneath her positivity, which no doubt helps her get through two swim training sessions per day.

(Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for IOC)

Despite what she’s been through, her expression is light. For someone so young, she looks back on her grave task of ferrying others across the Aegean Sea with remarkable strength and character.

“I just thought of the other 20 people in the boat and how it would be a shame if we drowned, because my sister and I are swimmers. My sister yelled at me not to get in as well, but I did,” Mardini said.

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The death-defying trip comes with its own unusual punch line: “In the end, we tried the motor and it started working again in the last five minutes!” Mardini can only laugh at that twist.

After surviving the sea passage, they headed toward the border region between Serbia and Hungary, where a lot of people are caught by the police, Mardini said.

At one point, their group spent six hours crossing a cornfield, pausing to stay hidden with every step to avoid being discovered by the police. At another point they were arrested by Serbian police and taken to a camp, but Mardini said they ran away and continued their trek toward Germany.

This determination is what can lead Mardini to Olympic success, her trainer, Sven Spannekrebs, pointed out.

Coach Sven Spannekrebs talks to Yusra Mardini during a training session. (Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for IOC)

“When we started, we were actually aiming for the Tokyo Olympics 2020,” he told TakePart. “That is still her long-term goal.”

Mardini needs to shave a few seconds off her personal best in order to achieve the B standard of the International Swimming Federation and possibly qualify for Rio—dropping from her personal best of 2 minutes, 11 seconds down to 2 minutes, 3 seconds.

“It’s not easy to shave my time down,” she said. “I just have to practice, focus—no parties, no going out, healthy food. I hope I make it.”