BERLIN – Swimming for her life in the Mediterranean, Syrian teenager Yusra Mardini is training hard to qualify for the upcoming Rio Di Janeiro Olympic games next June, offering a peak of hope for thousands who fled war in their home country.
“I want all refugees to be proud of me, I want to encourage them that even if we are not in our homeland and had a tough way that we can still do great things,” Mardini told Reuters.
“It is hard to leave your home, very hard,” Mardini added during a break from training at the Berlin swim club Wasserfreunde Spandau 04.
“Our house was destroyed, we did not have anything anymore and we ran away.”
The 18-year-old refugee left her home in Syria to Turkey.
Last summer, she left Turkey, making her way to the Greek island of Lesbos before crossing central European states to reach Berlin.
The journey was surrounded by danger as the engine of their boat stopped, forcing Mardini, her sister Sarah and another man to kick in the water to save 20 people on board.
“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 said.
“It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned. There were people who didn’t know how to swim.”
Sarah added that it was the people in the dinghy who had it worst.
“It was scary actually for the other people who were with us in the boat, but not for me,” Sarah said.
“I just wanted to get everyone safely to the island. Which we did, thank God.”
More than a million refugees, mainly from Syria, have crossed via Turkey and Greece into Europe in the past 12 months.
Arriving Berlin, the young swimmer started looking for a club to train and reach the qualification point, for which she is about seven seconds off.
Currently, the aspirant swimmer trains in Wasserfreunde Spandau in a pool originally built for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
“I want to go to the Olympics. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” she said with a big grin and confidence to match.
If qualified, Mardini will be part of a team of 43 players from refugee camps.
The qualified players will march as a separate team called Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA).
They will stay along with the other teams in the athletes’ village and have the same privileges as all other 11,000 athletes.
Nomination criteria to make the ROA include sporting level, official United Nations-verified refugee status and personal situation and background.
“The 43 belong to different sports, mainly athletics and swimming,” said the IOC’s Pere Miro, Deputy Director General for Relations with the Olympic Movement.
The final list will be released in June, including Ethiopians, Syrians and South Sudanese refugees among others.
“What we wanted to do with this project is to show the world that there is a problem,” Miro said.
“The 43 are only the cherry on top. We want to show that the Olympic movement is based on values.”
“What we really believe is that this should continue after the Games in Rio. This is not something we have done only for Rio Games. This should be continued.”