Yusra Mardini exclusive: ‘We stand up’ again, says refugee swimmer

Not finished in the pool or out of it, the Refugee Olympic Team athlete from Rio 2016 has her sights set on Tokyo next summer – and changing the world. 

By Nick McCarvel

If four years ago Refugee Olympic Team swimmer Yusra Mardini was a wide-eyed first-time Olympian at Rio 2016, the Syrian native, now 22, is a self-assured international athlete, best-selling author, United Nations ambassador and so much more.

She also still has her eye on Tokyo 2020 in 12 months’ time.

“I’m training better than ever,” she said in a recent Instagram Live interview on Olympics. “I'm really excited for next year.”

In a wide-ranging chat, Mardini, who has been based in Germany since fleeing her home country in 2015 in an ordeal that included helping tug a boat full of fellow refugees in the Aegean Sea, spoke at length about the power of the human spirit – and what she still wants to accomplish in and out of the pool.

“I want to tell my story,” she said from her home in Hamburg. “I thought my story could be something that helps people at the moment in these hard times. I'm using it to motivate them… to give them a reason to continue on to dream again and to know that if you have a downfall, that doesn't mean it's the end of the way.”

No, we stand up. We try again and we continue.”

Mardini was also one of the athletes to participate in the Airbnb Olympian & Paralympian Online Experience, where she led a live conversation on YouTube about how others can find strength in her story.

It’s a story that made headlines in Rio, and – after her book was released to acclaim in the spring of 2018 – is going Hollywood, with a female-directed movie in the works before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped production.

Below, an edited version of the Instagram Q&A, some of which included Mardini watching Olympic footage of herself for the very first time.

“I love watching these so much,” she said, seemingly starstruck by her own TV image.

Olympic Channel: Can you actually take me back to the beginning? How did you first get introduced to swimming?
Yusra Mardini: That's such a funny story. I hated swimming. I used to cry when I was young because the water was cold. My father (would) force me to swim.

I started loving the sport when I was like nine years old or something. I stopped crying. And I realised, ‘Oh, I'm faster than the older woman or the older girls.’

Slowly but surely I got into the sport. The main reason is that my dad's family, most of them were swimmers. It was just something that you have to do (in the family). You didn't choose.

The moment I really realised that this sport means a lot to me is when the war started and I left swimming for a whole year and then I decided to come back.

I realised (without swimming) that I don't have any goals in my life. That's not me. And I realised also the community in sport, the family you get from it… it’s really unique. It’s the point where I realised, ‘You know, I (don’t) want to be just anybody… I want to be someone at the Olympic Games, at the World championships.’ It was then I realised, ‘I don't swim because my dad wants me to. I really love it.’

We stand up. We try again and we continue. --Yusra Mardini

OC: What were the conditions like that you were swimming in?
My whole life it was really hard to be an athlete in Syria. But when the war started, it was way harder because the water was always really, really cold. Sometimes there was no electricity. Sometimes you could not even enter the pool because there were like bomb attacks. I was going to school, but (was I) really living? That’s why we decided to leave to Germany. Swimming in Syria was pretty tough, even before the war it was tough. But when the war started, it was way, way harder.

Yusra Mardini, Rio 2016

OC: Do you remember the first time you watched the Olympics on TV? Or knew what the Olympics were?
I think I was nine [Beijing 2008]. We had to watch every World championships and Olympic Games and anything that Michael Phelps was swimming, because my dad wanted us to look us at his technique and to do the same and to learn from the heroes of swimming. I would get always so motivated. Seeing how Michael Phelps is winning gold over gold over gold.

Finding a new path

OC: Your story is incredible. Leaving Syria with your sister Sara, helping that boat across into Greece and then eventually making it into Germany. It’s part of what makes up your full person today.
Mardini: You have to build your life from zero again. For me, swimming helped me because I met the community and they started showing me (life in Germany).

Sport is great. I think especially refugees at a young age, they should do sport and to have something else then school, community and so on. Sport has always really helped me in my life, to be honest.

OC: One thing at Olympic Channel we’ve embraced is #StrongerTogether. How do we relate the refugee experience with what people are going through with COVID-19? I don’t want to suggest they are similar but are there parallels?
I think what we can learn is that we really are stronger together because we're all working to get through this pandemic.

If we work all together to solve every problem that we have, I think things can turn out pretty good in the world. But unfortunately, we don't do that. What I'm saying is that every time everyone comes together, that problem is solved way faster.

That's what we should do with refugees as well. Because I hope one day refugees won't exist. At the moment, it is really, really bad and it's going in a worse direction because of the pandemic. I hope that people always think about each other and think that, ‘OK, at least I'm home, I'm safe, and my loved ones are safe.’ Refugees, we don't know if our loved ones in Syria are safe.

(Try to) think about them. You can put yourself in their position and think and try to see how you can help, because there are lots of ways that we can help refugees, actually.

Yusra Mardini: Olympian and refugee

OC: What COVID has done for so many people is taken away the control they had – or thought they had – in their lives: Financial, routines, health… it makes me think of the lack of control that refuges have and how important it is to be positive and take positive action.
Mardini: My sister (Sara) said in an interview a few days ago, ‘We refugees lost everything. And we came here and we built our lives from zero. We can build our life again at any point in life.’ And I was like… that's true. And the thing that we all learned from this pandemic is that we shouldn't really hold on to our plans and just live. Let life happen.

You have to really see the good in the situation, and then be positive about it. Because again, every time you plan something like this and then it's gone… you're done.

So we also have to enjoy (this time) a bit and be with our families, because I know people that actually (have spent) more time with their families than ever. And did things that (they’ve) never done before. I always say, ‘Look at the bright side as well.’ It’s a great lesson to all of us. I hope everything goes back to normal because that (would be) a good thing and that the Olympic Games happen next year, too.

OC: I want to get to the swimming chat, but let’s stay here for a little longer. You are a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, focusing on the refugee crisis. Tell us about your work there.
Mardini: I work with UNHCR, the refugee agency. I do a bit less because I focus on swimming at the moment more than anything. But I go to visit camps, talk to refugees and represent refugees in everything I do. Sometimes I go to other countries for events to give a speech in front of a lot of people to remind everyone that this crisis still exists and it will exist in five years.

The most important thing I always say is that refugees are normal people, they're human, and they do have dreams.

This is basically my work: I bring awareness to people. I wake them up sometimes because someone has to do it. And one day I want to have my own foundation. But that's too early with swimming. It's impossible. I hope in the future I will do way more. But first of all, I'm focusing on swimming now and then I'm doing everything I can for refugees.

Remembering Rio 2016

OC: Let’s go back to Rio 2016. You walk with the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team into the Opening Ceremony and the whole place gives you a standing ovation – I was there and it was magical. What do you remember?
It was incredible. Like you can see on our faces, I think already the way everyone stood up when the team came in, I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ The whole stadium stood up. It was incredible. I would not trade this moment for anything in my life, to be honest. I want (that) again. So, I'm working hard for that. Next time I'll be carrying the flag… I hope (laughs).

It was special, to be honest. The team… the spirit of the team. Each person had his own story and her own struggle. Once we entered the stadium, everything was gone. ‘I'm here. I achieved it. I'm happy about it.’ They bring hope and they bring, ‘I've been through a lot, but here I am!’ That vibe. And this is what makes the team so special as well.

The most important thing I always say is that refugees are normal people, they're human, and they do have dreams.

OC: OK, so in the pool you swim the 100m butterfly. You win your heat, but your time doesn’t qualify to move you on to the next round. How did you feel?
Mardini: I was shaking. First of all, the crowd… I've never seen a crowd like this in my whole life. Second of all, it's just like, ‘Don't look!’ Don't look at anyone. Look at the pool. Look at the pool. This is a pool… there are no crowds. And once we are in the pool, you forget about anything. Everything, to be honest. And I was in the race mood. It was an incredible feeling. I was so scared and so happy.

I wasn't happy with the time. I was like, ‘I can do better. Why didn't I swim faster?’ Yeah.

I was (too) young to realise that I went through a lot and that only being there is everything. This moment, ‘Oh, you're going to the Olympic Games!’ I wanted to do good.

The time was short, you know, after all the trauma and everything that happened. So if I look back now, I'm just proud that I stood up again and I tried again because it was pretty rough.

Eyes on Tokyo

OC: So what about Tokyo? How tough has the one-year delay been on you?
Everything that happened this season… and with the Olympic Games being postponed, mentally we were all tired. We needed a break. The only thing that (has) stayed the same is that all of the athletes still have the aim for Tokyo, which is obviously incredible. And if you need to learn how to, you know, to be strong, it's from athletes. (When) we fall, then we stand up and go. So this is what happened, I think, with all of us.

OC: You haven’t officially qualified for Tokyo yet, but obviously you want to be there if you can, right?
I want this experience to happen again in my life. I'm giving everything for it.

For the female swimmers, I did not hear of anyone that swam faster (than me). My times are getting better. I'm training good. I swim 10 to 12 times a week for training. The German national team, some of them qualified for Rio as well.

OC: That’s a competitive environment, the German national team. Tell us about your training set up there. (Mardini moved from Berlin to Hamburg two years ago to train with more international-level swimmers.)
Mardini: Just being with them in the pool and at the gym, they are so motivational. This is helping me a lot in my life. I moved from Berlin because I wanted to challenge myself. I knew the team is amazing in Berlin, but I wanted to go to a stronger team to learn something from them. And actually, it's working. They are always there for me and pushing me to the limits. It's also my coach and all of that.

Training in COVID times

OC: COVID has certainly impacted your training. Tells us about that, too.
Mardini: So we had a time where we couldn't get into the pool. But now we can. Only the Olympic team is allowed to. The (social distancing) measures are really intense and we have to take care of all of that. The thing is that at the Olympic Centre where I train, it's only for four professional athletes. It (makes it) easier for us.

Before we could get back into the pool I was running. I learned how to ride the bike because I didn't (know how to), which is funny. Now I bike to training every day, which is cool.

I want this experience to happen again in my life. I'm giving everything for it. --Yusra Mardini on Tokyo 2020

OC: What about the mental side of things? How are you taking care of yourself there… the pressure, COVID, all of that.
I have a coach for mental training and she's incredible. Sometimes you have to talk to someone outside of the pool, outside of everything in your life. I think it's very important for sport and for everyone who needs it.

To be honest, I'm fine with my life and I'm happy with it. But I still talk to someone because it's important. And she's kind of preparing me for how to deal with stress before races and all of that and how to overcome things that are hard.

OC: Tell us about your family. How is everyone doing? Where is everyone?
My whole family is in Berlin. My sister is such a cool activist – she's still working with refugees. She helps wherever she can. She speaks German and English and she's forgetting Arabic. My parents are a bit struggling with their (German) language still, but it's hard. Everyone's fine. They're searching; they don't know what they're going to do for a job. And so on. But my father was also working for a while as a swimming coach.

Embracing the journey

OC: I just want to go back to five years ago… You flee Syria in the summer of 2015 and then a year later you’re at the Olympics on the first-ever refugee team. It’s amazing.
Everything felt unreal that happened in 2015-16.

It is crazy. I've never imagined that something like this would ever happen in my life. The way we came (close to) almost losing our lives and then trying as hard as possible to survive and then arriving to a country and start swimming after like two months. And then… start working for your dreams again.

It was it was really all very, very crazy. And after that qualifying and then going to the Olympic Games… everything felt and still feel feels a bit unreal. But I'm very happy and thankful for this opportunity. I'm thankful that the IOC actually created this team and (to) the president as well. I feel really lucky that I've been a part of this experience. And that's why I am continuing to work hard and aiming for Tokyo so we can create this great experience again.

OC: The stress that must have been encapsulated in that… in your journey. How did you face that?
Mardini: Last year I put a lot of pressure on myself because I was like, ‘I was in the Olympic Games. Oh, my God. If I don't swim good when I qualify for Tokyo, all the media is going to talk about it’ and all of that. And then I was like, ‘You know what? Relax.’

There are many people to talk about and not only me. And I was like, as long as I know that I'm giving my best in everything I'm doing, that's enough. As long as your parents, as long as even one person is supporting you and what you are doing in your life, trust this person (that) you are.

And there is one thing we all forget about all the time, that we are needed. We are loved and… the world needs you. So, (I told myself): If sport doesn't work, it's not the end of the world. You can try a lot of new things. You could try music. You can try acting, dancing, whatever. When you feel down… go out of the bubble you're in. And this is how you can maybe make it a bit better. Or if you think nothing helped you, then please ask for help. And talk to someone because it's OK to talk to someone.

Overcoming hardship

OC: Let’s close with this: You’ve overcome a lot. Why is it important to you to share that? Why is it important to share the hardships you’ve faced and hope that others can learn from them?
A lot of people are like, ‘How could you smile while you're telling this (refugee experience)?’ Really, it's hard. And some people are like in tears while I am like smiling about it. And I'm like, you know, because I am lucky. I, I survived and went to the Olympic Games and I pursued my dream and I'm working for my dream again. So one thing is that I love what I do is the reason.

And there is one thing we all forget about all the time, that we are needed. We are loved and… the world needs you.

I want people to understand that I know there are a lot of obstacles along the way. But that doesn't mean that it has to stop you. It doesn't mean that if one person told you you're not good enough that (they are) right. No, prove them wrong. Always.

And I just want to show them that refugees are also normal. We did not come from the desert.

I swam in Syria. I went to the World championships when I was in Syria, age 15. So we did achieve something in Syria even before coming here. The point of my life and job and everything is to show that refugees are normal and we have dreams. And I want to prove people wrong who are saying we cannot.

Yusra Mardini, press conference, Rio 2016


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