Yusra Mardini makes a splash for refugee Olympic team
The 18-year-old swimmer, who saved the lives of several companions in the Aegean sea with her sister, won her 100m butterfly heat but missed out on semis.
It was what Yusra Mardini left unsaid, rather than the conventional words of excitement, that made the bigger impression after the teenager's debut in the Olympic pool on Saturday.
"I was only thinking about water and the last competitions and where I am now," the Syrian, swimming for a refugee team, told reporters when asked what went through her mind ahead of her 100 metre butterfly heat.
The first of the refugees in action, she had looked down briefly before stepping on the platform. "I left swimming for two years so now we are working to get back to my level," said the 18-year-old, who won her heat of five swimmers but finished 41st overall, when asked how her time compared to previous ones.
There was no need to explain the two-year break in her career, or indeed what kind of water might have been on her mind. Rio is a life away from where she started.
To get to the point where she could discuss simple strokes and times involved fleeing Syria, making a treacherous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece and arriving in Berlin with her sister last year. She swam part of that crossing over to the island of Lesbos, helping other refugees who were in the water and were unable to swim.
"It was quite hard to think that you are a swimmer and you might end up dying in the water," she said later. A competitive swimmer in Syria, she is now part of a refugee team backed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). She has met the Pope and been feted in Rio.
"It was really cool and everything was amazing and everyone welcomed us," she said of the opening ceremony, speaking as reporters crowded around. "It was really amazing and an incredible feeling to compete here in the Olympics and I am happy and glad for that... I'm really happy to be here and to see all of the champions and other swimmers here."
She shrugged off a suggestion that all the attention around her might have prevented her from just enjoying the experience of the Games.
"This is not difficult because all of those people want to show everyone what I'm doing...and that we didn't stop our refugee trip and it continues," she said. And then it was back to sport again.
In March, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced he would choose five to 10 refugee athletes to compete at the Games.
One other swimmer, Rami Anis, is also originally from Syria and will compete in the men's 100m butterfly. Mardini is also entered in the 100m freestyle.
Each Refugee athlete is being hosted by a National Olympic Committee. Mardini is being hosted by Germany, while Anis is being hosted by Belgium.
Six refugee athletes are competing in athletics and two in Judo.
"I'm really excited for the 100 freestyle and I hope I'm going to swim better," Mardini said.
From civil war to the Olympics
Last year Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini had to swim for her life when her boat broke down as she tried to reach Europe; this month the teenager will be swimming in the Rio Olympics.
Yusra, who is a member of the first ever Olympic refugee team, told how she and her sister Sara feared they might drown after their overloaded dinghy started taking in water as they crossed the Mediterranean to Greece.
Along with another refugee they jumped in the sea and pulled the boat for three hours through the water, saving the lives of 19 others.
"When I was in the water there was fear. You don't know whether you are going to live or die," the 18-year-old said in a video interview published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Mardini, who will compete in the 100-metre freestyle, is among 10 athletes in the refugee team which will march behind the Olympic flag at Friday's opening ceremony in Brazil.
"When I was swimming for my life, I never would have believed I would be where I am now," the IOM quoted her as saying.
The two sisters, who now live in Germany, left their home in Syria's war-battered capital Damascus a year ago and headed to Turkey.
One evening they boarded a dinghy on the Turkish coast along with 20 others - around three times as many people as it was designed to carry.
"Before you go on the boat, people tell you that you are going to die," Sara told IOM in an interview published on Monday. "So the first thing you think about when you get on that boat is death. You don't think of anything else."
Hundreds have died crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey as they tried to reach Europe after fleeing conflicts and political turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere.
COLD AND EXHAUSTED
Sara, also a swimmer, said she told her sister that if their boat capsized during the journey they should just try to save themselves as it would be impossible to help everyone else. But when the engine stopped and the boat started deflating she realised she could not let the others drown.
"We needed to have less weight on the boat and nobody else besides us could swim ... When I first got into the water my whole body was shaking like it does just before competition," she said. "At that very moment I felt that life was bigger than me alone. All the people on that boat were part of me. I thought it was my duty to jump in the water ... if I [had left] them I would feel bad with myself for the rest of my life."
She described how her father's friend cut off her trouser legs in the sea to stop her clothing weighing her down. After two hours she was battling exhaustion and knew she risked falling asleep and drowning.
"It was getting dark and cold, the wind was blowing and I was freezing. I could not open my eyes any more, they were full of salt water," she said. They eventually arrived on one of the Greek islands in the middle of the night.
Yusra and her sister say they hopes her story will inspire others.
"Now we are training really hard," Yusra said. "I think about making my parents proud and everyone who supported me."
The teenager has three dreams. "I hope that they will open the borders for refugees, and I hope to get a medal in the Olympics, and that my home town is in peace again."
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