You may have seen Yusra Mardini at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The usual obstacles an athlete must overcome when training for the Olympics (time, financial barriers, injury, to name a few) are nothing compared to the hurdles Mardini had to clear. Just one year before competing at Rio, Mardini had fled her home in Damascus, the capital of Syria, to escape the country’s ever worsening war.
While she’s small in stature at five-foot-five inches tall, Mardini’s will to succeed — not just survive — is larger than life. Featured as one of six trailblazing athletes in Under Armour’s new campaign, ‘Will Finds A Way,’ Mardini never considered giving up on her goal. Where does she find the strength? “What kept me going is that I wanted to be someone who has dreams; who has hope to actually inspire the world,” Mardini says over the phone from Germany, where she now lives and trains.
Leaving her life in Syria
In Syria, Mardini had lived a typical life, she says. She went to school, saw friends, and trained as a competitive swimmer, even representing Syria at the FINA World Swimming Championships in 2012. But that changed as the Syrian war grew more violent and the threat of bombing made once ordinary things like swim practice dangerous, or near impossible. “It was really horrible for all of us. Sometimes there would be bombing while we were in the pool and my group would have to run out of the water and go downstairs because of what was happening,” she says. Other days Mardini wouldn’t make it to training at all. “Sometimes I’d be in the car or in a taxi and my mom would call me and tell me to come back home because she’d heard something was happening,” she says.
By 2015, Mardini ached to have a life free from war and her mother agreed that Mardini and her sister, Sarah, would leave Syria. The sisters travelled to Turkey, where they met with a smuggler and other refugees they would be travelling with. From there they travelled by boat to Lesvos, a Greek island in the Mediterranean about a 45-minute boat ride from Turkey. But the trip became even more dangerous when the motor on the boat they were in cut out just 15 minutes off the shore of Turkey. Mardini, her sister, and two other strong swimmers jumped out of the boat and began to tow it the remaining distance — which took an incredible three and a half hours. “Me and my sister — we knew we could swim it, but we didn’t leave the boat because there were people who didn’t know how to swim,” says Mardini. “Sometimes you don’t know you can do it until you are in the situation. When you come to the point where you have to do it or die, you will do it.”
The swim was obviously physically exhausting but also proved to be a mental challenge. “The worst thing was that you could see the island but never reaching it,” says Mardini. When they did finally reach the shore, water was the first thing on Mardini’s mind. “ I was really thirsty,” she says. “All we had was one bottle to share so we could just take sips of water.”
Eventually, Mardini and her sister made it to their final destination in Germany and Mardini began to rebuild her life as a swimmer, but her new status as a refugee came with some preconceptions. “A lot of people were looking at me as this new girl who knows nothing about life,” she says. “Once someone asked me if I had ever worn a racing suit. I said, ‘Dude, I was in a world championship.’”
Rebuilding her dream from the ground up
Over the next year, Mardini trained to get back to the level she had been swimming at before war forced her to leave the sport. When the opportunity came up to join the Refugee Olympic Team, Mardini admits she wasn’t yet ready. “I was taking a chance because obviously it was a great opportunity,” she says. “It made me really proud to represent refugees around the world. We were spreading a message that you can do whatever you want as long as you believe it.”
What’s next for Yusra Mardini?
Now 20-years-old, Mardini credits swimming — and sport — for where she’s at today. “Swimming built up my life again,” she says. And she’s excited for where the sport will lead her next. Mardini is currently training with the hope of competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and, in addition to her role with Under Armour, she is serving as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “I have this idea that I want to be a motivational speaker. I like writing and I like helping people,” says Mardini. “ I’m excited about the next few years of my life because I think it’s going to be full of surprises.”
Related: How to Love Life (And Yourself), According to Olympic Sprinter Natasha Hastings