Yusra Mardini: Olympic Syrian refugee who swam for three hours in sea to push sinking boat carrying 20 to safety

The teenage swimmer used her talent and risked her life to help save the lives of 19 others 

Heather Saul
Tuesday 09 August 2016 15:34 BST
Yusra Mardini: Olympic Syrian refugee who swam for three hours in sea

Almost every athlete at the 2016 Olympic Games will have an interesting backstory, but Yusra Mardini's is more extraordinary than most.

Mardini is in Rio to represent a team of 10 refugee Olympic athletes.

While any other 18-year-old’s biggest achievements may be confined to the A-level results they leave school with, Mardini’s is almost incomprehensible.

She and her sister are responsible for helping to save the lives of 20 people, including their own, after jumping off their sinking dinghy into the Aegean Sea and pushing their boat to land.

Mardini, who now lives in Berlin, will compete in the women’s 100-metre butterfly and freestyle heats on Saturday and Wednesday. Her appearance is being touted as one of the most highly anticipated of the Games.


Mardini was a talented swimmer in war-torn Damascus and professionally backed by the Syrian Olympic Committee. As unrest in the besieged country escalated, she would often find herself training in pools where roofs had been blown open by bombings. “Sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war,” she said. “And sometimes you would be swimming in pools where the roofs were [blown open] in three or four places.”

Damascus became increasingly unstable and Mardini and her sister Sarah eventually left Syria, travelling through Lebanon and Turkey before trying to reach Greece.

Saving lives

Thirty minutes after setting off from Turkey, the motor on their boat, which was meant for six people but carrying 20, began to fail. Most of those on board it could not swim. With no other alternative, Mardini, Sarah and two strong swimmers jumped into the sea and swam for three hours in open water to stop their dinghy from capsizing, eventually reaching Lesbos.

“We were the only four who knew how to swim,” she said of the experience. “I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that.”

But while she now hates open water, the memory is not a nightmare for her. “I remember that without swimming I would never be alive maybe because of the story of this boat. It’s a positive memory for me."

After Lesbos, Mardini and Sarah travelled through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria before arriving at their final destination: Germany.

Mardini is equally remarkable for her self-effacing attitude and resilience as she is for her life-saving act. “It's tough,” she has said. “It was really hard, for everyone, and I don't blame anyone if they cried. But sometimes you just have to move on.”

Starting again in Berlin

Mardini has now settled in Berlin, where she was put in touch with the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 swimming club and taken on as a member. Quickly realising her potential, Coach Sven Spannekrebs began considering Mardini for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But her road to the Games turned out to be a much quicker path.

Mardini trains for two to three hours every morning, attends school and then continues to train in the evening.

According to the Guardian, Syria has been monitoring her swimming career and asking for regular updates.

Tackling the dehumanisation of refugees

“I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go,” she said at a press conference announcing her place on the team.

“Everything is about trying to get a new and better life and by entering the stadium we are encouraging everyone to pursue their dreams.”

She also has hopes one day that peace could be brought to fruition in Syria and she could take her story home.

“Maybe I will build my life here in Germany, and when I am an old lady I will go back to Syria and teach people about my experience.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in