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Refugee Olympic swimmer spreads hope

Yoshiko Nakata

Sep. 13, 2017

A young refugee from Syria is using her love of swimming as a way to offer encouragement to other refugees and young people. Yusra Mardini competed in the first-ever Refugee Team in last year's Rio Olympics. The 19 year old is now hoping to qualify for the 2020 games in Tokyo. Mardini visited Japan in late August to share her story.

Yusra Mardini is so passionate about swimming, she's become a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations refugee agency. Mardini hopes that by sharing her story, she will be able to deepen the understanding of the refugee crisis.

"I was in the 7th grade when the war started in my country. I knew there was no peace anymore. I decided me and my sister would leave the country and go to Germany," she says.

The civil war in Syria broke out in 2011. Four years later, Mardini fled the country. She literally swam for her life when her boat broke down and she had to jump into the water and push. She finally reached Germany.

The 2016 games marked the first time in Olympic history that a refugee team was allowed to compete. Mardini was a promising swimmer in her home country and she qualified for Rio. But she admits that at first, she was a little uneasy with the idea of swimming as a refugee.

"I thought it was pity -- someone feels pity for me, that's why they created the team. But then my coach asked me one question, he asked me what do you want to do in life and I said swim and he was like why, and I said I want to go to the Olympics," she says.

Mardini competed in the 100-meter butterfly and 100-meter freestyle. She didn't advance to the semifinals, but nevertheless was overjoyed with the experience.

"People reacted amazing. The whole stadium were standing, it was a moment I will never forget. It gave me hope and it makes me feel that I want to be motivated enough to arrive my messages more to the people, to those refugees who feel they lost everything, to make them try again," she says.

The experience made her more determined to pursue her Olympic dream. She's now aiming for Tokyo.

In July this year, she competed in the World Championships, her first international race since Rio. She took part in the 200-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly. She fell short in advancing to the next round, but she did shave one second off her butterfly time.

"My goal since I was young was of course to win a medal, but if this was so hard, then I want to be from the top 20. I should train more, I should have more kilometers actually," she says.

Mardini has set an ambitious target for this year. She wants to improve her record by cutting off several seconds. She now trains 5 hours a day.

"I have the power to change the water into gold, this is how I continue. Every time I cry in the water, I say this sentence in my heart," she says.

Mardini uses her own experience to offer encouragement to other young people. She tells them to continue following their dreams, no matter what.

"You should never give up on your dreams, you should continue doing what you want, and if you love swimming, football, if you like studying, you should always continue what you want, if you really love it from deep down in your heart," she says.