Syrian Refugee Who Swam a Sinking Boat to Shore Sets Sights on Olympic Games


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Source: UNHCR/Gordon Welters

Source: UNHCR/Gordon Welters

Swimming is more than just a hobby for this 17-year-old Syrian refugee.

Yusra Mardini was on a boat headed to Europe when she was literally forced to swim in order to save her life. During her journey, the engine of the boat failed and water started to gather quickly, causing the boat to sink. Mardini was faced with a tough decision: Should she save herself or put her life on the line and try to rescue the entire boatload of people?


For Mardini there wasn’t an option, she simply thought she must try to save the 20 people who were on the boat.

“It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned,” she told the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) in an interview. “There were people who didn’t know how to swim. I wasn’t going to sit there and complain that I would drown. If was going to drown, at least I’d drown proud of myself and my sister.”

Without hesitation, Mardini, her older sister Sarah, and two other passengers swam the boat to shore thanks to pure determination. After a harrowing three-and-a-half hours they managed to get the boat to the Greek island of Lesbob. Mardini and Sarah then decided to make their way to Germany, hoping for an easier life.

After settling down in Berlin, Mardini and Sarah were referred to a sports club. Mardini soon formed a strong friendship with Sven Spannekrebs, one of the coaches at the club, after they began training with each other every night. Spannekrebs saw Mardini’s talent and set her on another journey: the summer Olympics.

Source: UNHCR/Gordon Welters

Source: UNHCR/Gordon Welters

“She learned really fast. After four weeks I said to her, ‘Our goal must be the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,’” Spannekrebs told UNHCR.

Quickly after the duo set that goal, the International Olympic Committee recognized Mardini and 42 other athletes to participate at the games this summer in Rio as part of a team of Refugee Olympic Athletes.

“I’m going to make them proud,” Yusra said. “I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days. I want to inspire them to do something good in their lives.”

All Mardini has to do now is achieve a qualifying time in order to be considered among five to 10 other athletes in June.

“I want everyone not to give up on their dreams and do what they feel in their hearts,” she shared. “Even if it’s impossible, even if they don’t have the right conditions, you never know what will happen, just keep trying.”

Mardini hopes to use Rio as a stepping-stone to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Toyko. However, the current refugee situation makes it hard for Mardini to have a solid plan. She does know that she would like to return to Syria one day.

“Of course I miss Syria,” she said. “I think after the war stops I will go back with experiences, with everything, and I will teach everyone what I had here in Germany.”

Check out more about Mardini and her story below!


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