Swimming for her life to swimming for gold? Syrian refugee gunning for Olympic glory at Tokyo 2020

Yusra Mardini has the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in her sights
Yusra Mardini has the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in her sights

If you had told Yusra Mardini five years ago that she would be living in Berlin and training to swim at the Olympic Games, she never would have believed you.

“Liar!” laughs the 20-year-old. “I would have said that was a wish or something.”

It would be easy to take her impeccable English for granted, but nothing has come easy for this Syrian athlete, who three years ago was swimming for her life.

After her family’s house was destroyed in the Syrian civil war, they decided to undertake the perilous journey from Damascus to Lesbos – but disaster struck after just 15 minutes in the Aegean Sea.

“The motor stopped, and me and my sister and two guys had to jump in because the water was sinking into the boat,” she recalls.

“We stayed in the water three and a half hours.

“It was really hard because the water was cold, and you were seeing the end but never reaching it.

“It was not a trip that anyone would want to do.

“But there was a kid on the boat. I had to smile for him the whole time even though it was hard.”

Rather than dwelling on such painful memories, Mardini looks ahead with typical positivity: instead of swimming for survival, she is now swimming for the Olympics.

After competing as a member of the inaugural Refugee Olympic Team in 2016, just a year after arriving in Germany, Mardini now has her sights set on Tokyo 2020 – and global domination.

“I was never expecting that,” she admits. “I never expected that it would be that soon after the trip, so it was crazy.

“I’d been dreaming about the Olympics, about being a great swimmer.

“The Olympics is a huge high and I was really thankful to be there.

“Every time I get tired I say, ‘I want to be a world champion.’ This sentence really motivates me.

“Swimming is a little bit boring. You always have to create something new and for me I always try to keep going even if it’s hard, even if I don’t want to be there.

“You have to find a way to keep going, so it’s really important that you have this mentality and you are flexible and you have the will.

“Sometimes in my life I had situations where no one would keep going, but I did.

“The will inside helped me get to my goals, and will keep helping me until I reach everything I want and dream of.”

Mardini finds inspiration all around, from athletes like boxers Anthony Joshua and Muhammad Ali to the people surrounding her daily.

“It’s not about boxing, it’s about what they achieved and their mentality, I really like it,” she explains.

“And I like how they are keeping going no matter who they are or where are they from.

“A lot of people around me inspire me – my family, my coaches, my manager,” she continues.

“And people I see every day, even kids, because each and every person is different and special in their own way. I could have a lot of lessons from the people around me.”

Mardini is starting to understand the power of her own inspirational story, as showcased in Under Armour’s new Will Finds a Way campaign.

The year-long global campaign celebrates dedication and resilience, highlighting ‘the hardest worker in the room’ in a film narrated by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, which tells the stories of six trailblazing athletes, highlighting their impressive stories of will that propelled them to greatness.

“It is a huge responsibility,” she says. “You have to take care of what you are doing, how you are reacting as an athlete and as a normal person because a lot of people – mostly young people – are looking up to me.

“I just keep going. Sometimes it’s hard but you have to do that.”

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