Yusra Mardini, 18, is competing at her first Olympic Games, just like many of her competitors.
But unlike some of the athletes she’s up against, Mardini is also on a brand-new team on the Olympic stage, the Team Refugee Athletes. Mardini fled Syria with her sister; part of their journey included pushing their flooding, overcrowded dinghy through the Mediterranean Sea as the strongest swimmers on board.
The Syrian swimming star, who competed at the 2012 Short Course World Championships, eventually made it to Germany. Her training facility was originally built to host the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
“Since arriving in Berlin, I have been humbled by the warm welcome I’ve received from the swimming community and everyone associated with the Olympic Games,” Mardini said through a VISA press release, one of the team’s sponsors. “It means so much to me to have a partner that accepts me, includes me, and provides me with the same opportunities as other athletes competing in Rio.”
Mardini and nine other Team Refugee Olympic athletes entered the Opening Ceremony on Friday night as the last delegation before the host nation; normally, if a swimmer or other athlete is competing the day after the Opening Ceremony, they will not march (see: Michael Phelps for the past four Games).
Instead, Mardini marched with her newfound teammates, joined in Olympic unity under the “refugee” umbrella.
Then, Saturday morning, she raced to one minute, 9.21 seconds in the 100m butterfly. She added about a second to her entry time, listed at 1:08.51. She didn’t swim fast enough to advance to the semifinal Saturday night (Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden advanced in first place with a time of 56.26 seconds).
It didn’t matter: She won her preliminary heat, made up of swimmers from Grenada, Yemen, Rwanda and Qatar.
And her Olympic schedule isn’t over; Mardini is entered in the 100m freestyle, where the preliminary heats begin on Wednesday. She’s even looked beyond the Rio Games, telling the Associated Press, “I hope for more in Tokyo,” the next Olympic Games in 2020.