The 19-Year-Old Refugee Whose Olympic Story Is Inspiring Us All


With the start of this year’s Olympics, marked with a very impressive opening ceremony three days ago over in sunny Rio, the games are well and truly underway.

Dozens of strong and inspiring women competing this year – and every year – from all walks of life and from all corners of the globe, gives me a big fat boost of girl power motivation.

The story of Yusra Mardini really struck a chord with me. The 19-year-old from Syria is one of the ten athletes to compete in the games for the first time as part of the Refugee Olympic Team.

Yusra’s tale and journey all began in Syria. She and her sisters were fleeing the war-torn country along with 18 other people when the refugees’ dinghy began sinking in the Aegean Sea.

The motor had failed thirty minutes after setting off from Turkey, and nobody on the boat could swim except the sisters. It’s a story that often ends in tragedy, but that didn’t happen. Yusra and Sarah leapt out of the boat into freezing cold waters and pushed the boat three hours in open water to prevent it from capsizing – eventually making it to Lesbos. It was a move that not only saved the lives of the 18 people in the boat but ensured the sisters lived. Real life superheroes.

“We were the only four who knew how to swim,” she said. “I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like…done. I don’t know if I can describe that.”

“I remember that without swimming I would never be alive maybe because of the story of this boat. It’s a positive memory for me.”

After Lesbos, Yusra and Sarah traveled through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, and Austria before arriving at their final destination: Germany.

Now living in Germany, life is much better. Initially, she began training, and was being considered as an Olympic hopeful for the 2020 games in Tokyo, but the refugee team allowed for her dream to be realized much sooner. She is working now not only in swimming but in changing the perception of refugees around the world.

“I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go.”

Yusra trains for two to three hours every morning attends school and then continues to train in the evening. Just making it to the Olympics would have been an achievement enough, but the 19-year-old just won the first heat in the women’s 100-meter butterfly.

It’s such an amazing story, to go from training in pools where roofs had been blown open by bombings, to now reaching the Olympics and winning.

She could have easily given up, stopped training once the war wrecked her training pool, or even given up pushing that boat for three hours. But she just kept on going.

If that’s not motivational, then I don’t know what is.

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