Mon, Jul 22, 2019 - Page 10 News List

Refugee swimmer Mardini rising fast after fleeing war

AFP, GWANGJU, South Korea

Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, who almost drowned at sea fleeing her war-torn country four years ago, heaved a deep sigh yesterday after failing to set a personal best in the 100m butterfly at the FINA World Championships in South Korea. As an authorized neutral athlete, the 21-year-old looked up at the giant scoreboard and winced at her time of 1 minute, 8.79 seconds.

“I’m not very happy actually,” Mardini said. “I had some problems with my shoulder, but I’m back in training. I still have the 100m freestyle and I’m looking forward to that.”

Mardini’s time was more than 12 seconds slower than that of reigning champion Sarah Sjostrom and 47th overall, but she has come a long way since risking her life crossing from Izmir in Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in the summer of 2015.

Thirty minutes into that treacherous journey, the motor on their dinghy cut out and the tiny vessel, carrying 20 people rather than the six or seven it was designed for, threatened to capsize.

As the only people who could swim, Mardini and her sister Sarah jumped into the water to push and pull the stricken dinghy for more than three hours until they finally reached the shore.

“I arrived in Greece in only jeans and a T-shirt,” said Mardini, who also swims in the 100m freestyle later this week. “Even my shoes were gone.”

Mardini famously competed at the Rio Olympic Games a year later under the refugee flag.

“In the beginning, I refused to be in a refugee team because I was afraid people would think I got the chance because of my story,” said Mardini, who lives with her family in Berlin.

“I wanted to earn it. But then I realized that I had a big opportunity to represent those people — so I took the chance and I never regretted it,” she added. “Rio was amazing. It was really exciting to see the reactions of people to the team. Now I’m representing millions of displaced people around the world and it really makes me proud.”

It is a far cry from life back in Syria, where rocket strikes would often shake the pool she trained at in Damascus.

“There were bomb attacks sometimes that would crack the windows around the pool,” said Mardini, who has addressed the UN General Assembly and whose story is set to be told in a Hollywood movie.

“We were scared the whole time.”

Fellow Syrian Ayman Kelzieh was also forced to flee the country before competing at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.

Returning to Korea five years later, the 26-year-old now owns a fistful of national swim records, including the 50m, 100m and 200m butterfly.

“When the war started, I had just moved to Damascus and I couldn’t get back home to Aleppo,” said Kelzieh, who now lives in Phuket, Thailand. “There were even attacks at the hotel I stayed in — I was lucky.”

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