From the day the Syrian fled her home in Damascus to the moment she stepped out into Brazil’s Maracanã Stadium as an Olympian, she felt diminished by her newfound status: “reduced to a single word.”
Even as the world reveled in her remarkable story — winning her butterfly heat at Rio 2016 a year after swimming for her life — she felt conflicted.
How things have changed.
Tokyo 2020 is on the horizon, but the unwitting star of the Refugee Olympic Team knows now that her greatest battle could well lie outside of the pool.
“Last Olympics, I represented more than Syria,” the 20-year-old Mardini tells CNN Sport. “I represented millions around the world. And I really love this idea. If I’m going to compete under the German flag, or the Syrian flag or the Olympic Flag, I’ll be representing all of them.
“Sport actually gave me this really strong voice. I am using it to help refugees to get them to better places; to get them shelter; and to just let the people understand that they should open borders for them.”
An everyday life turned upside down
It is a tale that sheds light on the unimaginable hardship experienced by millions fleeing war-torn countries around the world.
It starts with a normal family living a decidedly normal life.
Yusra and her sister Sara were encouraged to swim before they could walk by their father, a coach, and the Olympic dream took hold as they gathered around to watch the exploits of US star Michael Phelps on television.
The specter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad loomed large even from the beginning — his portrait hanging above the pool she trained at in the ancient capital of Damascus.
But Mardini is at pains to communicate that her upbringing was once no different from that of the average Western teenager. She went shopping and ventured out with friends.
Trouble erupted in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but the family looked on with a degree of detachment. “This will never happen here.”
Until everything changed.
Tanks began to prowl the streets, friends mysteriously disappeared and, slowly but surely, Mardini started noticing the mortar shells only in the brief periods when they stopped falling.
Forced to uproot to new cities on numerous occasions, the sisters decided enough was enough when an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade crashed through the roof and directly into the swimming pool while Yusra trained.
“You know, I got to a point where I got sick of it,” says Mardini. “People were dying, I was doing school, doing swimming, taking care of my little sister, but I felt I’m going nowhere, and I didn’t want to be just one person who went through life and just died, you know. I’m not that person.
“I was like: ‘I don’t want to give up my life because of a war I didn’t start…”
Yusra and Sara resolved to undertake the difficult escape to Germany, leaving behind everything but a single bag of belongings.
It took 25 days, and the three hours that the sisters spent rescuing others in the Aegean Sea when the motor in their dinghy stopped working was just a fraction of the ordeal.
From Lesbos in Greece to Budapest in Hungary, they were refused basic commodities like food and a place to stay just because of where they had come from.
“This was sad because we are trying to find peace, not to bring war,” says Mardini, who admits she’s no longer able to look at the sea in the same way again.
“I was really angry at people, because every time I was thinking about it, I remembered that Syria is a country that opened the door for a lot of refugees among the years.”
But even in the worst of times, whether it was exploitative smugglers mistreating them or obstructive authorities hauling them off trains in Hungary, the sisters always had each other.
A camaraderie that transcended nationality was struck up as a group of around 30 refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and all over the Middle East joined forces.
“To be honest, before this trip I never believed that people would want to help people without wanting anything from them,” says Mardini. “This was really, really the biggest lesson I have ever learned.
“Because we came together… We didn’t care what was my color or his color; we didn’t care where he is from or where I am from. We just said: ‘We are refugees, we are going to Germany and we are going to stick together.’
“If I have a biscuit like this small, we will all share it, not because I’m not hungry but because I am happy sharing it with [them]. Because I know those people, when I’m hungry, they will give me food, even if they don’t have.”
A new start
What the Mardini sisters gained upon their eventual arrival in Germany was tainted with what they had left behind.
Yusra was initially housed in an overcrowded refugee camp, and recalls thinking, “Surely heaven must be prettier than this.”
“To be honest, when we arrived, when we were in Berlin, I was like ‘Take me back home,'” she admits. “You can’t say anything because obviously we appreciate that Germany opened the door for us. The numbers were not easy and they were not ready; I understood all of that.
“But also some stuff was unusual. They would always look at you in a certain way [because] you are a refugee. And, even now, Syrians are suffering from that.
“This is what I am trying to change. I am here and have reached something — and I am a refugee also from Syria that came with those people — so just give them a chance.”
Mardini was given a chance by German swimming coach Sven Spannekrebs, who offered her a place to stay at the aquatics center and constant support.
“I can see you’re serious … the way you’re committing to training,” he said to her one day. “Are you doing this because you just like swimming, or because you really want to achieve something?”
Mardini’s reply was instant: “I want to go to the Olympics.”
Except she wanted to get there on merit.
And, when IOC President Thomas Bach revealed plans to bring together the first ever Refugee Olympic Team, the budding swimmer balked at the idea.
“I was like ‘I’m not going,'” Mardini confesses. “Then, to be honest, my dad and my mum talked to me. They kind of reminded me how hard I had worked for that. They told me: ‘You’ve earned this place.'”
Even when Mardini eventually arrived in Rio, alongside her sister Sara and compatriot Rami Anis, she was “afraid about how people would react.”
But then she and nine other athletes — from South Sudan, Congo, Ethiopia and Syria — walked out in the opening ceremony, united under a single flag.
“And after this moment, a lot of people texted me saying: ‘This is what I’ve done with my life and this is what I’m going to do just because I saw what you did, and just because of this team. This team brings so much hope for the whole world.'”
A voice for change
She’d never wanted to be a hero; all she’d ever wanted was to swim.
But Mardini’s mind was made up.
“Yes, I’m a refugee,” she thought. “But I am proud of who I am. I don’t think I am any less than anyone.”
The 20-year-old’s actions since are testament to that.
Mardini continues to train every day in a bid to make the Tokyo 2020 Games — whether it’s for Syria, the Refugee Olympic Team or Germany — but her ambitions are no longer confined to the dimensions of a pool.
“I understand that it’s not only sport, it’s my life,” she says.”You can’t force people to accept us, or to say ‘OK, refugees are all 100% all amazing.’
“That’s also not true. There is always, around the world, the good people and the bad people. What I’m saying is they just have to give them a chance.”