Team Refugees Rio

This Syrian Teen Used Her Swimming Skills to Save a Boat Full of Refugees. Now She’ll Compete in the Olympics

Meet 18-year-old Yusra Mardini, who is one of ten athletes the International Olympic Committee announced today will compete in Rio as part of first-ever Team Refugees.

As the flimsy vessel started taking on water, Yusra Mardini knew what to do. Stranded off the Turkish coast with about 20 other desperate passengers, the teenager from Damascus slipped into the water with her sister, Sarah, and began pushing the boat towards Greece.

“There were people who didn’t know how to swim,” says Yusra, who represented Syria at the FINA World Swimming Championships in 2012. “It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned. I wasn’t going to sit there and complain that I would drown.”

Yusra lost her shoes during that perilous sea crossing – a small price to pay for making sure lives were not lost. After arriving on the Greek island of Lesvos, she travelled north with a group of asylum-seekers, occasionally turning to people-smugglers.

Not long after arriving in Germany in September 2015, she started training with a club in Berlin, Wasserfreunde Spandau 04. Now 18, she is preparing to compete in the women’s 200-metre freestyle event at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, as part of the Refugee Olympic Athletes team.

“I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days,” she says. “I want to inspire them to do something good in their lives.”

Team Refugees is an impressive bunch. You can view each of their profiles here. In addition to Yusra there will be another Syrian swimmer; two Judo athletes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and six runners from Ethiopia and South Sudan. They are all registered as refugees, meaning they fled persecution and violence in their homelands. The now live all over the world, but will compete under the same flag this summer.

The UN Refugee Agency, which supported this unprecedented move from the IOC, counts the number of refugees, internally displaced people and asylum seekers at 59.5 million–a record high number since World War Two. But even as the numbers of refugees climb worldwide, the political support to provide for their basic needs and dignity has not kept pace. In the US alone, a goal to resettle a mere 10,000 refugees by the end of the year is falling woefully short.

This by the IOC will certainly help put a spotlight on the refugee crisis on a global stage–and who knows, perhaps even a podium?