While every athlete at the Olympic Games has an interesting story, Yusra Mardani, who is in Rio to represent a team of 10 refugees, has a very special one.
Only a year ago, the 18-year- old who is hoping to make the IOC’s Refugee Olympic Athletes team was swimming for her life in the Aegean Sea. Mardani and her sister, along with two strong swimmers saved the lives of 20 people after jumping from their capsizing boat and pushing it to land.
“We were the only four who knew how to swim,” she recalls. “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,” Mardani says.
While she now hates open water, the memory is no longer a nightmare for her. “I remember that without swimming I would never be alive. It’s a positive memory for me. It was really hard, for everyone, and I don’t blame anyone if they cried. But sometimes you just have to move on,” she goes on to add.
Mardini was a talented swimmer in war-torn Damascus. She was professionally backed by the Syrian Olympic Committee.
Mardani often trained in pools where the roofs had been blown open by bombings.
“Sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war. “And sometimes you would be swimming in pools where the roofs were [blown open] in three or four places,” Mardani says.
She and her sister Sarah had to leave Syria when it became extremely volatile; travelling through Lebanon and Turkey before trying to reach Greece.
Mardini, who now lives in Berlin, 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.
During a press conference announcing her place on the team, Mardani said she hoped that people could see refugees as normal people. “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 and they had to go,” the star swimmer had said.
She also hopes for peace in Syria and being able 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,” Mardani says.
She will be competing in the women’s 100-metre butterfly and freestyle heats on Saturday and Wednesday. Her appearance is one of the most highly anticipated of the Games.
This article originally appeared on Independent.