“When I was a little kid, I was just put into the water,” Yusra Mardini, now 18, told The New York Times about her upbringing. Her father, a swimming coach, started her training at the tender age of 3 where they lived just outside Damascus, Syria’s capital. That training served her well as she competed on the Syrian National team and the Syrian Olympic Committee noticed her exploits in the pool and provided support for her training.
But then in 2011, all hell broke loose in Syria as a brutal civil war erupted. Life as Mardini knew it was over. She was just 13, her swimming career budding. Mardini said she tried to ignore the chaos unfolding in her country at first, but that after a while it became impossible to do so. “We never talked about the war,” she said of herself and friends. “It was annoying. In the beginning, everyone talked about it, but then after a few years, we were like, ‘O.K., if I’m going to die, I’m going to die! But let me live my life. I want to see my friends!”
Within a year, her home was destroyed and the facility where she trained had been hit by a bomb. It was a tipping point for Yardini. “I told my mom, ‘O.K., enough is enough. And she said, ‘Fine, find someone I can trust to take you, and you can go.’”
In August of 2015, Yardini and her sister, also a swimmer, boarded an inflatable boat in Turkey and headed for the Greek island of Lesbos. Her swimming prowess once again served her well as it helped save her life and the lives of others. The harrowing journey earned the sisters global headlines, as the two helped swim the failing boat to shore after its motor broke down. The sisters finally made it to Germany, where Yardini now lives, after trekking through five countries.
In March, Yardini was selected to compete for a place on a team of refugees — people with no official home state amid all of the upheaval in the Middle East. Eventually she made the team, but only learned the news when a bunch of journalists showed up at her door asking for a comment. “Because actually I never open my emails,” she explained to the Times about not knowing that she’d made the cut.
Perhaps that’s because she’s so focused on her swimming. In an interview with NBC News, she suggested that it doesn’t matter that she won’t be competing for an official country in the Rio games. “In the water, there is no difference if you are a refugee or Syrian, or German,” Yardini said. “In the water, it’s just you, the water and your competing mate,” she said with a smile.