Extraordinary story of the Olympic refugee athlete who saved 20 people from a sinking dinghy

·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·3-min read
Syrian refugee and Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini poses for the photographer after a training session in a pool at the Olympic park in Berlin, Germany, April 12, 2018. Picture taken April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Yusra Mardini has again been selected for the Refugee Olympic Team. (Reuters)

More than 10,000 athletes will compete in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo from next month. But few – if any – will have as extraordinary a story as Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini.

Mardini, 23, is competing for the Refugee Olympic Team six years after she helped swim a sinking dinghy, which was carrying 20 people, to safety.

Mardini and her sister, Sara, had to swim for their lives after the boat broke down as they crossed the Mediterranean to Greece, having fled their war-torn home country.

It is thought they swam for three hours.

Swimming - DSV Olympic Qualification - Europa Sportpark, Berlin, Germany - April 17, 2021  Yusra Mardini after qualifying for the Olympics REUTERS/Annegret Hilse
Yusra Mardini at an Olympic qualifier event in Berlin in April. (Reuters)

Now based in Germany, Mardini also represented the inaugural Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Games in Rio. On Tuesday, she was once again selected alongside 28 fellow refugee athletes.

Yusra and Sara Mardini, also a competitive swimmer, are both from Damascus, Syria’s war-battered capital.

Speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain in 2018, Mardini recalled their extraordinary journey and the moment that made them realise they had to leave to pursue their dreams: “We realised that we were working so hard and waking up to a routine [war] that won’t change ’til I’m 60 years old.

“I was working as hard as people in Europe but I knew I would not reach [my goals]. Why? Because there is war.”

Her training regime was not like your average elite athlete. “Sometimes you’re swimming and a bomb comes in the pool, so you have to run out and go hide. It wasn’t just once, it was three or four times. It was horrific,” she told Reuters in a 2018 interview. 

To escape Syria, the two sisters decided to flee to Turkey. From there, they boarded a dinghy on the Turkish coast.

“The boats are those boats you go on vacation with for five people, 10 people. There were 20 on it.

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“Most of them didn’t know how to swim. When we were on the boat the motor stopped and the water was coming in.”

She and her sister jumped in the water, in an “unconscious” decision.

Battling to stay awake amid sheer exhaustion, they reached a Greek island in the middle of the night.

Mardini eventually found her way to Germany, where she settled and trained hard, ultimately realising her goal in 2016 when she was selected on the first Refugee Olympic Team, which was created to raise awareness of the issue as hundreds of thousands of people were pouring into Europe from the Middle East and elsewhere, escaping conflict and poverty.

Rio Olympics - Olympic Park - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 01/08/2016. Syrian refugee team swimmer Yusra Mardini, 18, from Syria practices at the Olympic swimming venue.           REUTERS/Michael Dalder  FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
Yusra Mardini, then 18, at the 2016 Olympics. (Reuters)

“When I was swimming for my life, I never would have believed I would be where I am now,” she said in an interview in 2016.

Mardini has since worked to inspire others to pursue their dreams. Speaking at an event in 2019 in Amman with her sister - the first time the pair had been in Syria since fleeing the country - Mardini said she had been oblivious to what it means to be representing refugees and it was only later that she realised how it "changed many people's perspective".

The refugee team has now been expanded to 29 athletes in sports ranging from boxing to badminton. They will compete under the Olympic flag and march into the stadium during the opening ceremony in second place behind ancient Games founders Greece

"It will send a powerful message of solidarity, resilience and hope to the world," International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said.

Mardini will be competing in the women’s 100m butterfly event.

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