Olympics hopeful Syrian refugee swims for three hours pushing boat of migrants

Syrian Yusra Mardini is aspiring to compete at the Rio Olympics after swimming to safety from Asia to Europe.
FABRIZIO BENSCH/ REUTERS

Syrian Yusra Mardini is aspiring to compete at the Rio Olympics after swimming to safety from Asia to Europe.

Syrian teenager Yusra Mardini has faced obstacles as a refugee from a war-torn country that most people cannot even begin to imagine - and now she wants to go the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

The 18-year-old swimmer trekked across Turkey, made the treacherous sea crossing by boat to the Greek island of Lesbos and gradually weaved her way through most of central Europe with her sister before arriving in Berlin in 2015.

The sea journey to Greece was fraught with danger as the engine on her dinghy stopped soon after reaching open water. Mardini, her sister and a man jumped into the water and began kicking, propelling the boat built for 7-8 people, but carrying 20, toward Lesbos. The trio spent three hours in the water, kicking so hard their shoes came off.

Yusra Mardini was at home in the water as an aspiring Olympic swimmer.
Alexander Hassenstein/ Reuters

Yusra Mardini was at home in the water as an aspiring Olympic swimmer.

"I wasn't going to sit there and complain that I would drown. If I was going to drown, at least I'd drown proud of myself and my sister," Mardini said. "It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned. There were people who didn't know how to swim."

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Yusra Mardini swam for three hours as she helped push a boat carrying 20 migrants to safety.
Alexander Hassenstein/ REUTERS

Yusra Mardini swam for three hours as she helped push a boat carrying 20 migrants to safety.

Mardini's sister, Sarah, told the Daily Mail it was the people in the dinghy who had it worst.

"It was scary actually for the other people who were with us in the boat, but not for me," Sarah said.

"I just wanted to get everyone safely to the island. Which we did, thank God."

Yusra Mardini appeared at home in front of the cameras in Berlin as news of her incredible swim to safety emerged.
FABRIZIO BENSCH/ REUTERS

Yusra Mardini appeared at home in front of the cameras in Berlin as news of her incredible swim to safety emerged.

Having survived the sea crossing, Mardini made her way to Berlin in Germany where she is now part of a group of 43 hand-picked refugees who have been identified by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as potential Olympians and are being supported on their road to qualification.

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"I want all refugees to be proud of me, I want to encourage them that even if we are not in our homeland and had a tough way that we can still do great things," Mardini said, looking very much at ease in front of dozens of cameras and reporters.

"It is hard to leave your home, very hard," Mardini said during a break from training at the Berlin swim club Wasserfreunde Spandau 04.

"Our house was destroyed, we did not have anything any more and we ran away."

BERLIN TEAM

A competitive swimmer back in Syria, Mardini, who is about seven seconds off the qualification time she needs for the 200m freestyle in Rio, looked for a club as soon as she arrived in Berlin.

After checking out her level, Wasserfreunde Spandau took her in and Mardini has never looked back, now busy shaving seconds off her personal best in a pool originally built for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

"I want to go to the Olympics. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance," she said with a big grin and confidence to match.

The refugees who will eventually qualify and form a team of between five and 10 athletes in Rio will march as a separate team called Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA).

They will stay along with the other teams in the athletes' village and have the same privileges as all other 11,000 athletes.

Nomination criteria to make the ROA include sporting level, official United Nations-verified refugee status and personal situation and background.

"The 43 belong to different sports, mainly athletics and swimming," said the IOC's Pere Miro, Deputy Director General for Relations with the Olympic Movement.

All names of the athletes and their sports will be released in June and Miro said the list included Ethiopians, Syrians and South Sudanese refugees among others.

He said more than half were identified at the sprawling 180,000 refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, where there were organised leagues in football and basketball.

More than a million refugees, mainly from Syria, have crossed via Turkey and Greece into Europe in the past 12 months. An estimated 60 million worldwide are fleeing their homelands, Miro said.

"What we wanted to do with this project is to show the world that there is a problem," Miro said.

"The 43 are only the cherry on top. We want to show that the Olympic movement is based on values."

"What we really believe is that this should continue after the Games in Rio. This is not something we have done only for Rio Games. This should be continued."

 - Reuters

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