From refugee to global beacon of hope: This is swimming star Yusra Mardini's amazing life story

We take a look at Yusra Mardini’s incredible life story, from near-death experierience to two-time IOC Refugee Olympic Team athlete, and why she is now an inspiration for millions around the world.

4 min By Olympics.com
Yusra Mardini (2)

Yusra Mardini’s story embodies the Olympic spirit.

Forced to flee war-torn Syria in 2015 in search of a new life, she almost died on the treacherous boat journey over to Europe.

After settling in Germany, the talented swimmer made her way back to the pool, and one year later was selected to represent the first IOC Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016.

The standing ovation and love Mardini and her teammates received in Brazil changed her perspective on the Games, and life.

This November, a new film “The Swimmers” is being released, which depicts her incredible journey. With that in mind, we take a look at 24-year-old Yusra Mardini’s life story so far, how her outlook has changed, and why she is now a beacon of hope for millions around the globe.

EXTRA:Why Yusra Mardini's story should inspire the world

Yusra Mardini's near-death experience

Mardini enjoyed her childhood in Damascus.

She was a gifted swimmer, representing Syria at the 2012 FINA Short Course World Championships, and harboured a dream of winning Olympic gold.

But that dream came crashing down when war broke out, and the teenage prodigy quickly fell out of love with her sport due to her frustrations with war.

In 2015, Mardini fled Syria in the hope of finding safety, and a new life overseas.

After reaching Turkey via Lebanon, the teenager and her sister Sara arranged to be smuggled into Greece by boat, but quickly found herself back in danger.

The overcrowded dingy’s motor stopped working and it began to take on water.

Sara and Yusra got into the water with two others that could swim, and together pushed the boat to safety in Lesbos, Greece, over a gruelling period of three hours.

From there, the Mardinis travelled through Europe to Germany, where she settled in September 2015, and were eventually joined by their parents.

In 2015 Yusra Mardini guided a broken boat containing migrants to safety in the Aegean Sea.
In 2015 Yusra Mardini guided a broken boat containing migrants to safety in the Aegean Sea. (2016 Getty Images)

Qualifying for the Rio 2016 Olympics

Once in Germany, Mardini headed back to water in search of familiarity in her new surroundings.

With the potential to be selected for the first-ever IOC Refugee Olympic Team for Rio 2016, which was announced by IOC President Thomas Bach, she got to work with coach Sven Spannekrebs in Berlin.

The hard work paid off and in June 2016, Mardini was awarded one of the ten team berths to compete at the Games in Brazil.

She won her 100m butterfly heat, raking 41st among 45 entrants overall, but the real victory was that she had survived significant odds to compete on this stage at all.

Speaking in conversation with five-time Olympic champion Katie Ledecky on Olympic Day, the young swimmer reflected:

“The moment I entered the stadium, that changed the way I think about the word refugee.”

“I know that I am maybe not carrying my country’s flag but I’m carrying the Olympic flag which represents the whole wide world.”

Mardini’s story went viral after the Rio 2016 Games, and in 2017 she was appointed as the youngest-ever Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency.

In 2018, she released a book about her life titled “Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph,” while BAFTA-winning film director Sally El Hosaini began working on a film about Mardini, “The Swimmers.”

But swimming remained her main focus, and Mardini returned to the Olympics five years later at Tokyo 2020, in 2021, as the IOC Refugee Olympic Team’s flag bearer.

Having failed to progress from the heats, the butterfly specialist made her final Refugee Team appearance at the 2022 FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.

After receiving her German citizenship, Mardini will no longer be eligible for the team of refugees, and has not yet ruled out trying to compete for her new nation at the Paris 2024 Olympics.

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