Watching athletes sprint, throw, jump or flip their way through the Olympics is one of the highlights of our summer. The fact that we don’t get to watch the games, which were due to begin on 24 July, as a result of coronavirus is crushing for us – let alone the athletes who have trained for years to get this far.
But Yusra Mardini, Olympic swimmer, knows to expect the unexpected. Everything in her life has happened pretty unexplainably, quickly and shockingly, – yet she’s always got through it. After fleeing her home in Syria in 2015, Mardini found refuge in Germany. Just a year later she was on the Olympic stage at Rio, competing for the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team. “I still don’t believe that it happened somehow, because it was really a dream,” she told Strong Women via a Zoom call. “It made me realise that being a refugee is not bad and that I have a voice to show that refugees are normal and they do have dreams. That’s so important.”
A swimmer since she was a child, Mardini actually hated the sport when she was a young, explaining that her parents had signed her up to lessons but she would attend kicking and screaming. “I was so dramatic, like really dramatic,” she laughs. “But then I started being good at it. At the age of nine, I was faster than people who were 13 years old.”
Mardini was heading towards a professional career in the sport when she decided to quit after not being selected for the Youth Olympics, despite being the fastest girl in her age category. She wanted to live “like a teenager” she says, only to realise that the life of a regular teenage girl was “toxic. I was like, that’s not me, I don’t want to be that person.” She went back to the sport, of course, but the year out had cost her. “Everyone was like ‘Why are you back to swimming? You’re so bad now’ and I was like ‘wait for it, I’m gonna show you who I am’.”
“My mum thought I was crazy because I came home from training so tired that I slept with my back pack on but I just knew I wasn’t going to stop until I got what I wanted. I also wanted to prove to everyone else that no matter what, I was still better than them.”
That tells you all you need to know about Mardini, really, but there’s so much more to her story. Namely, her displacement from Syria when the war tore her life apart, aged just 17.
“The journey [to Germany] took us 25 days. It was a really rough journey and we almost drowned, so me, my sister and two others had to get into the water to stabilise the boat. There were 20 other people on the boat and most couldn’t swim. There were stories that I pulled the boat to safety, but that’s wrong,” she says.
Mardini used the life lessons she had learnt in the pool to get her through this terrifying experience, such as “patience, how to act with a community, how to communicate and how to have a goal in life”. But more importantly, her journey from Syria to Germany taught her lessons, too. “I realised that it’s not all about me,” she says. “That there are people that need help and that I can do something with my voice to help other refugees.”
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She is quick to dispel the ‘othering’ of refugees, saying that she is just a “normal person” and that her experience of fleeing a war shouldn’t define her. Case in point: one of the first things she did in Germany was find a pool. Mardini is a swimmer by identity, had been training for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and being a refugee didn’t change that goal.
“Swimming is always on my mind,” she says. “It was actually therapy for me to swim. My dad taught me that once you’re in the pool, everything else is outside of the pool. Every thought and worry is not there, you just have to focus on your training and your goals.”
When Mardini got the call for the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team, she rejected it on the basis that she did not want to go as a refugee. “My mum said to me ‘if my body could talk, it would tell you how many times I sat and watched you train’. I had forgotten how hard I had worked.”
Yet, with her dream brought forward by four years, and with only one year to train to Olympic standard – and after four months of travel from Syria where she had not swam, had barely slept and lived in unfamiliar surroundings without her home or her family – the hard work was really only just beginning. It took training three times a day and pulling on all of the lessons of strength and resilience she had learnt to get her there.
“I used to feel sorry for myself,” Mardini says, speaking about when she first began training in Germany. “I would say ‘I’m different’ and I was always waiting for special treatment somehow. My coach did not give me that special treatment, which was the right thing to do because I realised, you know what? I can do it on my own.”
Mardini may not have been prepared for Rio, but it seemed that things were finally taking course for her Tokyo dream. Of course, that hasn’t happened.
Although the refugee team hadn’t been announced before the games were cancelled, she’s still hoping that 2021 will be the year she gets to go. “I am so thankful for being a part of this team, and I want to be a part of it again because it was so unique. We were all different nationalities, we were different colours, we were female and male. This team included everything and every story that you could ever imagine.”
If we could all take just a tiny dose of Mardini’s strength, determination and courage, we’d all be better people. So, where would she recommend starting if resilience is your aim? “Try something new in life. Go out of your bubble. We always do the things that we are comfortable doing, doing things that we’re not comfortable about gives you so much courage and it will change the way you think about everything in life. Do not run away from challenges, stand up to them and try to win them,” she says.
Airbnb, the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee have collaborated for the Summer Festival, a five day event starting 24 July with a lineup of Online Olympian and Paralympian Experiences. Mardini will be leading an online experience about How To Overcome Hardship. Find the rest of the lineup here.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).