Swimming for Freedom

Y. Mardini during a training session, Berlin on March 9, 2016. Photo by Alexander Hassenstein, IOC Newsroom.

Last year, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, a 17-year-old Syrian girl, her little sister Sarah, and another female passenger pulled a sinking boat of refugees to safety. Today, Yusra Mardini is preparing for her debut at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio to compete as part of the first ever team of Refugees.

The boat, which was meant for no more than 6 individuals, was carrying more than 20. Off the coast of Turkey the engine died and quickly the dinghy started to sink. In an interview with the UNHCR Mardini said, “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 and the two other women swam for three and a half hours pushing and pulling the boat of 20 people until it reached the Greek island of Lesvos. Thanks to the heroic acts of these three women every passenger on the boat survived. However, such an experience inevitably leaves scars. Mardini says she now hates swimming in open water.

pulling together a refugee team could work

Once in Greece, Mardini and her family continued on to Germany. There, they were referred to a sports club where they met Sven Spannekrebs, a swim coach. According to an interview with the UNHCR it took Spannekrebs no more than a single month to recognize the immense potential Mardini possessed. “Our goal must be the 2020 Olympics,” he said. However, Mardini’s time may come faster than this athlete and her coach expected. It was not long after her training began that the International Olympic Committee announced it would allow displaced refugees to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games. Mardini has been identified as one of the 43 athletes who will have the opportunity to participate. If she achieves a qualifying time in the pool she will be among the 5-10 finalists to represent refugees during the Games.

Aside from Mardini, two others athletes have been named: Popole Misenga, a Judo player from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Raheleh Asemani, an Iranian taekwondo fighter. Of the remaining athletes, over half were identified at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, 55 miles from South Sudan’s boarder. Most of those identified are runners from South Sudan, Burundi and Rwanda although the full short list also includes athletes from Uganda, Mali, Syria, and Iraq among other countries. It was after visiting this vast camp in January 2016 that Pere Miro, director of the Olympic Solidarity Program, announced he was “more convinced than ever that pulling together a refugee team could work.” The finalists are to be announced in June.

Mardini is sending a reminder to us all that, “even if we had a tough journey, we can achieve something”.

Referring to the millions of displaced people around the world, Mardini said that if selected to represent Refugees at the Olympics she was “going to make them proud”. “I want to represent all the refugees,” she said, “because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days. I want to inspire them to do something good in their lives.” Mardini is sending a reminder to us all that, “even if we had a tough journey, we can achieve something”.