You can pretty much guarantee that behind every Olympic athlete there is an incredibly moving, poignant and inspirational story. You know the kind, one that’s all about achieving something overwhelmingly difficult against the odds. The kind that makes someone look superhuman. The kind that makes you reconsider your rather mediocre achievement of beating your older brother on FIFA.
The story of Yusra Mardini, a 20-year-old Olympic swimmer, is all of those things. It’s also one of the most extraordinarily inspirational stories that we’ve ever heard. Ever. Before her Olympic fame, Mardini was responsible for saving the lives of at least 20 people – including her own. Whilst fleeing her native, crisis-hit country of Syria on a rickety boat, in the Aegean Sea, she noticed to her horror that the small vessel was sinking. She jumped off, risking her life, and used her insanely strong swimming skills to push the boat to dry land.
“Only four people knew how to swim,” she says. “I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three-and-a-half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that.”
Yeah, this girl can swim. That’s for sure.
Fast-forward a year and Mardini is stood on the starting blocks of a swimming pool at the 2016 Rio Olympics. To a raucous reception from the cheering crowd, she’s about to represent the first all-refugee team in the 100-metre butterfly and freestyle heat. “It was the biggest sporting event in the world. It was crazy; it was amazing,” Mardini, who now resides in Berlin, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after the event. “When I was at the starting blocks, you just see lights and hear the people’s voices. They were all cheering. I didn’t feel my legs anymore.”
Hollywood are, unsurprisingly, now making a film about Mardini’s life. She has been appointed a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations refugee agency. She speaks at global summits. She visits refugee camps in Italy. She’s writing her memoir – “Butterfly” – at the age of 20. With her sights now set firmly on the Tokyo 2020 Games, she does all this whilst still swimming at a competitive level. Basically: She rocks.
Despite now living in Germany, a country that’s free of war and widespread destruction and political turmoil, the memories of that fateful day she saved the lives of 20 people remain with her. “I remember that without swimming I would never be alive, maybe because of the story of this boat,” she says. “It’s a positive memory for me.” Mardini’s awe-inspiring tale – one of astounding resilience, breathtaking perseverance and remarkable physical and psychological strength – is the most inspirational Olympic story we’ve ever heard. We can’t wait to see it on the big screen. Her unique blend of gritty and confident defiance, mixed with raw humility, is something we will not forget in a while.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons