On a cold December morning in Berlin, a week before a terrorist attack in a Christmas market would kill twelve people, Yusra Mardini is getting ready for a competition at the Olympic training pool built for the city’s infamous 1936 Games.
The temperature outside is chilly, and the water in the pool is not warm. Mardini, who competed in last summer’s Rio Olympics, is wearing a purple one-piece, her hair in a smooth ballerina bun. She plunges in and hits the surface as straight as an arrow.
Mardini had escaped the carnage in her native Syria fifteen months earlier to live, as she puts it, in “a peaceful country” but market attack would be horribly ironic.
Her story is an extraordinary one: Having boarded one of the numerous boats smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean, she helped tow it to shore when it began to sink. Her athletic skills propelled her forward, saving numerous lives, her own included.
Mardini was unpacking boxes in her new apartment in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf neighborhood, putting away pots and pans, when she turned on the news. She began to call everyone she knew to make sure they were safe.
The attack saddened but did not shock her. For a nineteen-year-old who grew up during a devastating civil war, watching her country devolve from dictatorship to revolution to life with tanks and soldiers on the streets, the attack was a brutal reminder.” Her voice grows somber. “It made me feel awful. At home we saw so much.”
After recent US President Donald Trump’s attempts at a so-called Muslim ban, halting the immigration of citizens from seven nations, including Syria, Mardini’s story of survival and triumph resonates more than ever.
This is a young woman who, in the space of months, went from suffering in her war-torn homeland to meeting Pope Francis and President Obama, Queen Rania of Jordan and Ban Ki-moon while being feted at the U.N. and elsewhere. But Mardini wants to be more than a poster girl for refugee resilience; she hopes to go to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and win. “She wants gold,” says her mentor and former head coach, Sven Spannekrebs, who is more like a big brother to her.
She often used to say “You have to wait to achieve goals. It can take a year to swim one second faster. You wait five years to get in your top form.”
Her mother, Mervat, was a physiotherapist, and her father, Ezzat, was a swimming coach who would take his children to the pool on Saturdays. “He just put us in the water,” Mardini says. Her older sister, Sarah, now 21, began to swim competitively, and Yusra followed suit. (She also has a younger sister, Shahed, now eight.)
Mardini was in seventh grade when the protests against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, leading eventually to civil war. Like everyone else, she had no idea at that time that it would descend into a conflict that has so far killed some 470,000 people and forced nearly five million Syrians out of the country. At first, she hardly noticed what was going on. “I just kept swimming and going to school, trying to live like a normal kid” is how she puts it.
Things were getting worst and worst as in 2012, there was an epic battle in Daraya between Assad’s government forces and opposition rebels. The town was destroyed and hundreds of civilians were massacred. Survivors were reduced to eating soup made from leaves. “After that, it was all different,” Mardini says. “Tanks, and electrical wires hanging down from their poles, everything ruined.”
It became harder to get to the pool because of shooting outside. She and her family moved to a safer part of Damascus that year, but Mardini stopped training. She missed two years of practice; during that time, Spannekrebs says, she lost strength and got out of shape.
She arrived Germany as refugee and by the summer of 2015, Mardini was begging. She wanted to swim again—and to lead a normal life. “I started saying, ‘You know what, Mom? I’m leaving Syria. If I die, I’m going to die in my wetsuit.’”
One morning her mother came to her door. She was crying. She said that Yusra and Sarah could leave. Two male relatives had agreed to accompany them to Turkey and then onward. She had no idea where her daughters would end up. “It was the hardest thing for her to do,” Mardini says. “But she knew we had to go.”
From Damascus, the sisters flew via Lebanon to Turkey. There they met with a smuggler and a crowd of other refugees trying to flee.
She explains that to get to Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, a Greek island close to Turkey in the Mediterranean, “The moment had to be right; the waves had to be right; there had to be a time when there were no patrols.”
In the forest, waiting, she tried to stay calm. She had her phone, her flip-flops, and a pair of jeans. “That’s it,” she says. She had no idea where she would go when she arrived in Greece. “We had a little bit of money, but not much. The trip out of Syria was meant to cost $1,500—but by the time we got to Germany, it was much, much more.”
They left at dusk on the fourth day with eighteen others. Not far out from the Turkish shore—about 20 minutes into a trip that should have taken 45 minutes—the motor stopped. Yusra felt the boat lurch forward and then start to sink. Sarah and Yusra immediately climbed out into the cold water and began pulling the boat with a rope toward the island, briefly assisted by two other passengers.
“We used our legs and one arm each—we held the rope with the other and kicked and kicked. Waves kept coming and hitting me in the eye,” she says.
“That was the hardest part—the stinging of the salt water. But what were we going to do? Let everyone drown? We were pulling and swimming for their lives,” she added.
They swam for at least three and half hours “There was a boy, Mustafa,” Yusra recalls. “He was only about six. He was really funny, and when we were in the forest, we were playing with him and joking with him. I think when we were pulling the boat, we wanted to save everyone, but we were thinking the most about him.”
“There was literally nothing on the other shore,” she recalls. “I had no shoes, as I had to kick my sandals off in the water. Someone on the road gave me a pair of shoes. But people were suspicious—I would not say they were friendly.” When she and the other refugees went into restaurants, the locals would not let them buy food.
They slowly made their way overland through Europe.
Once in Berlin, they spent six months in a camp there.
“I was sleeping on a floor—but I was safe,” Mardini says. From an interpreter, they heard about a swimming club that trained young athletes: Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, one of the most important and well-regarded teams in Berlin swimming circles. They arranged to try out.
“Every time we called to tell Mom we were OK,” Mardini says, fiddling with her earring, “she would just cry. ‘When can I see you?’” Yusra told.
Spannekrebs, a gentle 36-year-old, knows very well the life of a teenage swimmer, was amazed at their tenacity.
“It was clear these two sisters had trained seriously. Their technique was good.” He took them on and helped them get their papers to live in Germany. “I never expected we would go to Rio,” he says. “I just wanted to make their lives easier.”
He reminds Yusra it took her a year to get into shape. “I had to give up McDonald’s,” she jokes, then grows serious. “But I kept thinking about all the years I had worked so hard.”
Spannekrebs said that “She did everything I asked: wake up at 6:00 a.m. to go to the pool. Classes. Gym. Back in the pool.”
Sarah, meanwhile, decided to give up competitions. “She loved swimming, but she just did not want to make a career of it,” Yusra says. Now Sarah works for an NGO in Greece helping refugees. “She is happier.”
When Yusra gets tired, she thinks about Rio. In a blue blazer and tan slacks, a silk scarf around her throat, and wearing an enormous smile, she marched with her team, joining Olympic unity under the “refugee” umbrella.
A few days later, Yusra raced to one minute, 9.21 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly. Her entry time, listed at 1:08.51, was about a second shorter. She didn’t swim fast enough to advance to the semifinal, but she won her preliminary heat, and the Refugee Olympic Team made history.
Since her story became known, Yusra has received multiple book and movie offers, and she and her team are considering their merits.
Yusra has agreed to become a High Profile Supporter for UNHCR, with whom she is planning site visits, and is interested in becoming a motivational speaker.
“That was the high point of Davos for me,” Yusra says. “What a strong woman! Hearing her talk about moving on from grief. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Moving on?”