Why this Syrian teenager is one of the most inspiring Olympic athletes of Rio 2016

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Moya Crockett
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Union Jack flags at the ready: the Olympics open in Rio this Friday, and everyone’s rooting for Team GB.

But as well as cheering on British sportswomen like Nicola Roberts, Beckie Downie and Laura Trott, we’ll also be throwing our support behind another young female athlete: Yusra Mardini.

The 18-year-old Syrian swimmer is representing the Refugee Olympic Team, a group of 10 ‘stateless’ athletes who’ll make their first appearance in Friday's opening ceremony.

And while no one makes it to the Olympics without a major dose of grit, talent and determination, it’s safe to say that Mardini has faced more challenges than most. Last year, the teenager made the harrowing journey from her war-ravaged home city of Damascus to Berlin, via Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria – and helped to save the lives of 19 other refugees in the process. 

In August 2015 – three years after the International Red Cross declared a state of civil war in Syria – Mardini and her elder sister Sarah fled their home in the war-torn capital of Damascus. The girls travelled to Lebanon and Turkey, before attempting to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece.

The sisters knew that it would be a dangerous crossing; in 2015, some 3,770 people were reported to have drowned on similar voyages across the Mediterranean. Shortly after they set off from land, the boat on which the Mardinis were travelling started to fill with water.

20 refugees were crammed onto the dinghy, which was only designed to carry six people. Most of them couldn’t swim. But Mardini had been in the water since she was three years old, when her father, a swimming coach, started giving her lessons. She and her sister jumped into the sea and started pushing the boat towards Europe.

After swimming for almost four hours, the dinghy in tow, they finally reached the Greek island of Lesbos. Yusra and Sarah had helped save the lives of everyone on board.

“It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned,” Mardini told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “There were people who didn’t know how to swim. 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.

– Yusra Mardini

Having arrived on the shores of Lesbos without so much as shoes on their feet, the girls made the arduous journey to Berlin, travelling by foot and by bus through the Balkans and central Europe with the help of people smugglers. A refugee charity, impressed by what they had achieved, recommended that they attend a local swimming club – and soon, Mardini was training for Rio.

This is the first year that refugees have been able to compete in the Olympics. Mardini is joined by another Syrian swimmer, Rami Anis, as well as six runners from South Sudan and Ethiopia and two judo athletes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The team touched down in Brazil on Wednesday to a rapturous reception.

At a press conference in Rio, Mardini had a message for people who might be following her success back home in Syria. “I want to tell everyone that I really miss Damascus,” she told the assembled journalists. “I want everyone to think of their dreams, because a lot of people there forget their dreams.”

Images: Getty