18-year-old refugee girl who swam for her life could end up swimming in the Olympics
One year after swimming for her life in Greek coastal waters, Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini could be swimming at the Olympic Games.
The 18-year-old is hoping to be selected for a small team of refugees that will compete under the Olympic flag in Rio de Janeiro in August.
She fled Damascus with her older sister Sarah last August, surviving a hazardous crossing on the Aegean Sea to Europe.
Now Mardini trains at a pool built for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
She is among 43 refugees from different countries in contention for the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) “Refugee Olympic Athletes” team, which is likely to consist of between five and 10 members.
A final decision on the team members will be made by the IOC in June.
The Mardini sisters were among Syria’s brightest swimming stars until the war interrupted their progress.
The family had been moving around to avoid the fighting so their daughters could continue swimming, but the war intensified and eventually the decision was taken to leave altogether.
The sisters left Damascus in early August, joining a wave of Syrian refugees who lost hope of the conflict ending soon.
They made their way to Lebanon and then Turkey, where they paid smugglers to take them to Greece.
Their first attempt was thwarted when Turkish coastguards drove their boat back so they tried again, boarding an inflatable dinghy at dusk.
There were 20 people crowded onto the small boat, all but three of whom couldn’t swim.
Within half an hour, the boat was taking on water.
All the passengers’ bags were thrown overboard in an effort to stay afloat as wind churned up the Aegean Sea.
But it wasn’t enough: as a last resort, Yusra, Sarah and another strong swimmer jumped into the water to give the boat more buoyancy.
For three-and-a-half hours they clung to the side of the dinghy until it reached the Greek island of Lesbos.
A weeks-long overland trek followed, where they had to hide from police in cornfields to reach Hungary via Macedonia and Serbia.
Strangers gave them clothes while others stole from them.
They were arrested at borders and lost money on expensive tickets as authorities refused to let trains full of refugees pass.
Yet their spirits remained high – police who stopped them asked them why they were laughing.
Eventually, the sisters made it to Austria and then Germany.
Shortly after arriving in Berlin, an Egyptian translator at their refugee shelter put them in touch with Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, a local swimming club, where they were introduced to coach Sven Spannekrebs.
Spannekrebs said he was surprised by Yusra’s remarkable progress and that she has a good chance of qualifying for the IOC’s refugee team.
Yusra has since been joined by the rest of her family in Berlin.
If she makes it to Rio, she looks forward to meeting her old Syrian team-mates and friends.
© 2016 The Associated Press