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Girls & Women

After nearly drowning in Lesbos, Yusra Mardini swims for Olympic Refugee Athletes team

AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File

After only 18 years, Yusra Mardini has journeyed a great way to make it to the Olympic Refugee Athlete team.

One year ago, the Olympic qualified swimmer thought her life would be very different when she became a Syrian refugee. In 2015, she fled Syria for Germany – first crossing the Mediterranean sea to Greece. Tragically, as happens too often, her 6-7 person inflatable raft, which was carrying 20 refugees, capsized.

“I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea, because I am a swimmer,” she told a press conference later in Berlin.

Mardini along with her sister, Sarah, and another woman were the only refugees on board who knew how to swim. They entered the tumultuous sea and guided the boat to the shore of Lesbos.

Mardini’s story highlights how dangerous crossing the Mediterranean is for the majority of refugees. What would have happened to her raft if nobody was a good swimmer? Just last week, the world witnessed over 1,000 refugees drown in the same crossing. As summer brings warmer weather and conditions, more refugees from Syria, and North Africa will attempt this same journey and the world will see more death unless action is taken to provide safe passage. 

Back to our hero! Mardini not only helped save the lives of 20 people (including her own), she and her sister also made it safely to Berlin where she continued to train for the Olympics.

Swimming in Berlin was different than training in her homeland. "Sometimes you have a training and there is a bombing in the swimming pool,” she says in this International Olympics Committee video.

Mardini competed against 43 other Olympic level athletes who have no country to stand with in order to gain a well deserved spot on the Olympic Refugee Athletes (ROA) team. Members of the team were announced recently, and you can see other talented ROA team members in this Global Citizen photo essay.

During the most prestigious sporting event in the world, athletes from recognized countries come together to compete in over 28 sports. However, as global citizens know, citizenship is often not as simple as belonging to one country. When this distinction is challenged, the important thing is to seek unity rather than division – something Mardini feel strongly about when swimming.

“In the water there is no difference if you are [a] refugee, or Syrian, or German. In the water it is just you and your competing mate,” said Mardini.

Mardini is a true global citizen, and one you can now root for during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, starting August 5th.