When Yusra Mardini utters these words, the smile leaves her face for the first time during our conversation. Until then, the 22-year-old has oscillated between personable and vivacious. Despite the fact that we’re separated by a screen—she’s speaking to me via video call from her home in Hamburg, Germany—her energy has the ability to make me forget that we’re not in the same room. No answer is delivered without a few cheerful and enthusiastic gestures. And there’s an incredible sense of clarity and conviction in everything she says—her words carry a weight of wisdom unusual for someone so young. It’s only in that one moment devoid of conviviality that I’m reminded of just how harrowing her life had been a few years ago.
“At the back of my mind, I knew that I could swim it. But the other people on the boat couldn’t,” Mardini says, thinking back six years.
In August 2015, Yusra and her older sister Sarah were in a crowded rubber boat that was cutting through the treacherous waters between Turkey and Greece. It was just one leg of the perilous journey from their hometown of Damascus, Syria—by then ravaged by a multisided civil war—to Germany, where they hoped to seek refuge. When the boat’s engine suddenly gave up, and the possibility of capsizing seemed real, it became clear to both girls that they had to try swimming. It was the only way to ensure the safety of the 18 other passengers on board.
Hailing from a family of swimmers, the Mardini sisters weren’t fazed. After all, they had been swimming for as long as they could remember, guided through a rigorous training regimen by their father Ezzat. The goal, for Yusra especially, had always been to make it to the Olympics. In order to have a fighting chance at that goal, and at life itself, the sisters now did what they had to do. Sarah dove into the biting cold water, followed quickly by Yusra. Together they partly paddled, partly clung onto the boat, braving the waves and the icy black sea. Eventually, two others from the boat joined them in their struggle to keep everyone afloat. Three-and-a-half hours later, the boat scraped against the shores of Lesbos in Greece.
The torturous journey continued, taking them to Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany. They arrived at a refugee camp in Berlin, 25 days after leaving home. Miraculously, just some weeks later, the sisters managed to impress Sven Spannekrebs, the coach of a local swimming club called Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, enough for him to agree to train them. And in August 2016, just one year after leaving Syria, Yusra found herself greeted by rousing cheers at the Olympic stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
“What I’ve learnt from my whole journey is that giving up isn’t an option,” says Yusra. Of course, she is speaking of her journey in its entirety. A journey that included a year of rebellion during which she gave up swimming, cut her hair short, began using makeup, and prioritised a social life above all else. On the face of it, it might seem like fairly typical teenage behaviour. But when contrasted with the war in Syria, and her own determination to represent her country at the Olympics, the defiance was uncharacteristic. But Yusra now views it as a critical part of her past, not only because, “It’s always fun to be crazy once in a while,” but also because it taught her just how important swimming was to her.
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