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Olympics: A journey from Syria to the Olympic pool

Yusra Mardini swimming in the 100m butterfly heats. The Syrian, hosted by Germany but swimming for the IOC-backed refugee team, has been soaking in her first Olympic experience, amid the attention around her team.
Yusra Mardini swimming in the 100m butterfly heats. The Syrian, hosted by Germany but swimming for the IOC-backed refugee team, has been soaking in her first Olympic experience, amid the attention around her team. PHOTOS: REUTERS
Yusra Mardini swimming in the 100m butterfly heats. The Syrian, hosted by Germany but swimming for the IOC-backed refugee team, has been soaking in her first Olympic experience, amid the attention around her team.
To get to the point where she could discuss simple strokes and times involved fleeing Syria, making a treacherous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece and arriving in Berlin with her sister last year. She swam part of that crossing over to the island of Lesbos, helping other refugees who were in the water and were unable

RIO DE JANEIRO • It was what Yusra Mardini left unsaid, rather than the conventional words of excitement, that made the bigger impression after the teenager's debut at the Aquatics Stadium on Saturday.

"I was only thinking about water and the last competitions and where I am now," the Syrian, swimming for the Refugee team, told reporters when asked what went through her mind ahead of her 100m butterfly heat.

The first of the refugees in action, she had looked down briefly before stepping onto the platform.

"I left swimming for two years, so now we are working to get back to my level," said the 18-year-old, who won her heat of five swimmers but finished 41st overall in 1min 9.21sec, just off her entry time of 1:08.51.

There was no need to explain the two-year break in her career, or indeed what kind of water might have been on her mind. Rio is a life away from where she started.

JUST KEEP SWIMMING

It was quite hard to think that you are a swimmer and you might end up dying in the water.

YUSRA MARDINI, Syrian swimmer representing the Refugee team in Rio, recalling her journey from Turkey to Greece last year.

To get to the point where she could discuss simple strokes and times involved fleeing Syria, making a treacherous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece and arriving in Berlin with her sister last year.

She swam part of that crossing over to the island of Lesbos, helping other refugees who were in the water and were unable to swim.

"It was quite hard to think that you are a swimmer and you might end up dying in the water," she said.

 

A competitive swimmer in Syria, she is now part of a refugee team backed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

In March, IOC president Thomas Bach announced he would choose five to 10 refugee athletes to compete at the Games.

One other swimmer, Rami Anis, is also originally from Syria and will compete in the men's 100m butterfly.

Mardini is also entered in the 100m freestyle.

Each refugee athlete is being hosted by a National Olympic Committee. Mardini is hosted by Germany, while Anis is hosted by Belgium.

Six refugee athletes are competing in athletics and two in judo.

Mardini has since met the Pope and been feted in Rio.

"It was really cool and everything was amazing and everyone welcomed us," she said of the opening ceremony, speaking as reporters crowded around.

"It was really amazing and an incredible feeling to compete here in the Olympics and I am happy and glad for that... I'm really happy to be here and to see all of the champions and other swimmers here."

She shrugged off a suggestion that all the attention around her might have prevented her from just enjoying the experience of the Games.

"This is not difficult because all of those people want to show everyone what I'm doing... and that we didn't stop our refugee trip and it continues," she said.

And then it was back to sport again. "I'm really excited for the 100m freestyle and I hope I'm going to swim better."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2016, with the headline 'A journey from Syria to the Olympic pool'. Print Edition | Subscribe