Swimming to Survive, Now Swimming for the Gold: Yusra Mardini's Story

Last August, Syrian teen Yusra Mardini embarked on a month-long journey through Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece, carefully escaping capture and death.

Mardini fled Damascus in a boat with 20 other people including her sister Sarah. Within 30 minutes, the boat started to fill with water when Mardini, Sarah, and two men jumped into the Mediterranean Sea.

They pushed the boat to the shore in Lesbos, saving everyone's lives.

The sisters then proceeded to swim all the way to Berlin where a coach, Sven Spannerkrebs, started to train them both for the Olympics in 2020.

But because the Olympic committee created its first ever Refugee Olympic Team for Rio 2016, Mardini was able to compete sooner than she expected.


Less than a year ago, Yusra Mardini was neck-deep in the Mediterranean Sea, swimming for her life. This month, the 18-year-old from Syria will compete on @teamrefugees, the first refugee team at the @olympics. “Crying in the corner,” she said, “that’s just not me.” Yusra’s father, a swimming coach, began training her in Damascus when she was 3, and she went on to compete for the national team. But in 2011, war broke out, and last August, Yusra and her sister Sarah embarked on a monthlong journey to Germany. When their cramped dinghy broke down between Turkey and Greece, the sisters jumped into the water to help guide the boat to safety. Yusra’s clothes dragged her down and salt burned her eyes and skin. But she was determined to keep a good attitude. In June, she went from refugee to Olympian when she was named to @teamrefugees, along with 9 athletes from Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. @gordonwelters photographed #YusraMardini training in Berlin.

A photo posted by The New York Times (@nytimes) on

On Saturday, she won the opening heat of the women's 100-meter butterfly swimming competition with a time of 1:09:21.

While she won her heat, she still only ranked 41 in the competition, which meant she did not advance to the semifinals.

Mardini is scheduled to compete in the women's 100m freestyle on Wednesday, where she will be given another opportunity to move forward in the competition.

NEXT: #OlympianMAKERS: Everything You Need to Know for the 2016 Summer Games

Related Stories:
Meet the Women Who Are Part of the Olympics' First All-Refugee Team
2016 Rio Olympics Viewing Guide: What to Watch, Where, and When

Photo Credit: Lars Baron/Getty Images