Her swimming did more than just give people hope, it was an actual life saver.
Her swimming did more than just give people hope, it was an actual life saver.

One of the biggest stars at the 2016 Summer Olympics did not compete under her country's flag, but under the flag of her fellow refugees. From there, she took Rio by storm. In her recent memoir, Yusra Mardini shares her story in hopes of inspiring others.

In May, a memoir titled "Butterfly," after her favorite swimming stroke, was published about her life. "I want to change people's perception of what a refugee is," she told Reuters. "I'm going to keep supporting and fighting for refugees." She recounted how she left her home country, Syria, to participate as a swimmer in the Refugee Olympic Team in Brazil in Summer 2016. 

It was in Damascus, Syria where Yusra Mardini learned to swim. Her father was on the national swim team and Mardini eventually followed in his footsteps, swimming in the 2012 FINA short-course World Swimming Championships in Istanbul. But while she was competing the civil war was just beginning. She had no idea how important her swimming prowess would become.

Mardini continued to practice for competitions, but it became much more difficult to get ready due to the fighting. Her family's home was destroyed, her father was arrested and beaten, but the breaking point was when an unexploded shell fell into a nearby pool. She knew it was time to go.

"A lot of people think refugees are poor, or that they wanted to do this trip (to Europe)," she said. "But those people went out of their country because there was a lot of violence."    

Swimming for their lives

In August 2015, Mardini and her sister, Sara, left the country and ran through Turkey. They boarded an overcrowded dinghy bound for Greece's Aegean Islands in hopes of achieving asylum. During the trip, the motor suddenly cut out and the dinghy started going down. Facing certain death, the Mardinis and two others jumped out and pushed the dinghy towards shore for three hours. Due to their quick thinking, 20 people survived and were able to try to find new life in Europe.

Yusra and Sara Mardini continued into central Europe, dodging border patrol in Hungary to make it to Germany. Yusra did not give up on her dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer and continued her training in her new city, Berlin. With the help of her coach Sven Spannenkrebs, she qualified in a 200 meters freestyle swimming event and was offered a place in the Refugee Olympic Team that was headed to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.


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