Yusra Mardini, an eighteen-year old swimmer originally from Syria competing on the Olympic Refugee team, won her heat in the 100 m butterfly on Saturday. With a time of 1:09:21, however, she did not advance to the semi-finals.
Mardini is one of ten athletes to compete on the Olympic Refugee team, and one of two refugees from Syria. The International Olympic Committee created the 2-million-dollar program in March to provide a message of hope.
“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem,” International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said. “We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the athletes of the word.”
At 14 years old, Mardini swam for Syria in the 2012 short-course world championships. Eventually, the conflicts in the country destroyed her home, forcing both her and her sister made the decision to flee last August.
The two joined a wave of Syrian refugees that left Damascus. They made their way to Lebanon and then to Turkey. The sister paid smugglers to get them into Greece, but their first attempt was thwarted when Turkish coast guards sent them back.
They tried again, boarding a small dinghy at dusk with 20 other passengers. Only three on board knew how to swim. Half an hour after leaving shore, the dinghy began taking in water, resulting in the passengers throwing their bags overboard in an effort to stay afloat. When that failed, the two Mardini sisters and the third swimmer jumped overboard to swim the dinghy to safety.
The swim lasted 3 ½ hours, until at last they reached the Greek island of Lesbos. From there, the sisters embarked on a week-long overland trek through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary, hiding from police in cornfields.
Eventually, the pair made it to Austria and then at last to Germany, where they reside with a family in Berlin.
Mardini is not done competing yet. She will be seen in the women’s 100 m freestyle on Wednesday, where she will have a second chance to advance. Even if she does not, however, she feels like she already won.
“Everything was amazing. The only thing I ever wanted was to compete in the Olympics,” she said. “It’s an incredible feeling and I’m happy to see all the great swimmers here. Competing with all these great champions is exciting.”