She Swam to Escape Syria. Now She’ll Swim in Rio.

Yusra Mardini, who will compete on the refugee team at the Rio Games, trained at the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 club in Berlin. Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times

BERLIN — Yusra Mardini, an Olympic swimmer, was an hour and a half into her first training session of the day, butterfly-kicking down the length of a pool with a yellow rubber duck balanced on her head.

Other young swimmers shared the lane, but Mardini, 18, kept her own pace, darting down the center, emerging at the edge of the pool from time to time to exchange the duck — used for balance training — for a snorkel or a kickboard.

Mardini has been practicing since October at the training center for Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, one of the oldest swimming clubs in the city. The pool was built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics.

Everything about Mardini’s route to the Rio Games has been unlikely. She will compete on the first refugee team at an Olympics, a feat that was unthinkable less than a year ago when she was neck-deep in the Mediterranean Sea swimming for her life.

Last August, Mardini and her sister Sarah fled war-torn Syria and embarked on a harrowing, monthlong journey through Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, up through the Balkans and Central Europe, to Germany, narrowly dodging capture and death. When their crammed dinghy broke down between Turkey and Greece, she and her sister, also a swimmer, jumped into the water and helped guide the boat to safety.

Mardini’s story came to public attention in March when she was identified by the International Olympic Committee as a candidate to compete on a new team of refugees, made up of athletes who are stateless or would otherwise be excluded from the Games. She was thrust into the spotlight, celebrated by the news media as a fresh-faced example of Germany’s so-called welcome culture — a story of uplift at the center of the global refugee crisis.

Mardini was officially named to the refugee team in June along with nine athletes from Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. The team will compete under the Olympic flag and anthem, entering the Maracanã stadium on Friday for the opening ceremony next to last, just before host Brazil. Mardini will compete in the 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly.

“It’s going to be really cool,” she said, throwing a hot-pink Nike backpack onto a table in the cafeteria of the training center.

She had found out a few weeks earlier that she had made the Olympic team from a group of journalists who had come to the apartment where she now lives with her sister.

Mardini’s participation in the Olympics was unthinkable less than a year ago when she was in the Mediterranean Sea swimming for her life. Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times

“Because actually I never open my emails,” Mardini said.

Then, she said, the journalists told her that a friend of hers, Rami Anis, also a Syrian swimmer, had made the team as well. “That’s when it was like, Ahh!” Mardini said.

Mardini had changed into a zip-up hooded sweatshirt (a gift from the German swimwear brand Arena) and blow-dried her hair into shimmery, past-the-shoulder layers. In each ear she wore two studs: a pearl and a rhinestone.

Mardini swings between frenetic, uncontainable excitement and half-bored preoccupation. She sends text messages frequently. In other words, she is a normal teenager.

“When I was a little kid, I was just put into the water,” said Mardini, who grew up in the Daraya suburb of Damascus. Her father, a swimming coach, began training her when she was 3. Mardini went on to compete for the Syrian national team and received support from the Syrian Olympic Committee.

But then war broke out in 2011, when she was 13, and Mardini saw her relatively idyllic life begin to transform.

“All the sudden you couldn’t go where you wanted, or your mom calls you when you’re on your way and says, ‘Come back; there’s something happening there,’” she said.

School would be canceled for several days, she said, “or someone is shooting, and then you have to run.”

Yet within the world of her friends and classmates, Mardini said, life for the most part went on as usual. “We never talked about the war,” she said. “It was annoying! In the beginning, everyone talked about it, but then after a few years, we were like: ‘O.K., if I’m going to die, I’m going to die! But let me live my life. I want to see my friends!’”

‘Enough Is Enough’

In 2012, Mardini’s family home was destroyed in the Daraya massacre, one of the worst onslaughts in the early part of the war, with hundreds of civilian casualties. Things continued to deteriorate. Two of her fellow swimmers were killed, she said, and one day a bomb lacerated the roof of the center where she trained.

Mardini with her trainer, Sven Spannekrebs, who was impressed with her technical foundation but not her fitness when he gave her a tryout. Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times

“I told my mom, ‘O.K., enough is enough,’” Mardini said. “And she said, ‘Fine, find someone I can trust to take you, and you can go.’”
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On Aug. 12, 2015, Mardini and her sister left with two of their father’s cousins and another friend. They flew from Damascus to Beirut, Lebanon, to Istanbul, where they connected with smugglers and a group of about 30 refugees with whom they stayed for the duration of the journey.

The group was bused to Izmir, Turkey, and then taken to a wooded area near the seaside to wait to board a boat to the Greek island Lesbos.

“We thought we were the only bus, but there were four or five busloads every day,” Mardini said. “There were 200, 300 people there, everyone waiting until there are no police in the sea so they can go.”

At night, helicopters patrolled the area, she said, but the Turkish authorities never entered the forest.

“The police are afraid because the smugglers have guns,” Mardini said. The smugglers, she said, “were not afraid.”

After four days, Mardini and her sister were packed with 18 other people, including a 6-year-old boy, on a dinghy meant to accommodate six. On their first attempt, they were caught by border agents and sent back. On their second, the engine died after about 20 minutes, and the dinghy took on water.

Of the 20 people on board, only the Mardini sisters and two young men knew how to swim, so the four of them jumped overboard. It was about 7 at night, and the turning tide had made the sea harsh and choppy.

“Everyone was praying,” Mardini said. “We were calling the Turkish police, the Greek police, saying: ‘Please, please help us. We have children! We are drowning!’ And they just kept saying: ‘Turn and go back. Turn and go back.’”

While Mardini’s fastest times are well behind the official Olympic qualifying times for her events, she is hoping for a personal best. Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times

Mardini and her sister swam for three and a half hours, helping the boat stay on course — even when the two male swimmers gave up and let the dinghy pull them along. It was cold, Mardini said. Her clothes dragged her down, and salt burned her eyes and skin.

“I’m thinking, what? I’m a swimmer, and I’m going to die in the water in the end?” she said.

But she was determined to keep a good attitude — and not just for her own sake.

“The little kid kept looking at me, scared,” she said, “so I was doing all these funny faces.”

A Long Wait

Eventually the boat made it to shore in Lesbos, but the journey was only beginning. The people in the group walked for days at a time, sleeping in fields or churches. Even though they had money, taxis refused to stop for them, and restaurants often refused them service.

“But there were good people, too,” she said. “When I arrived, I didn’t have any shoes, and there was a Greek girl — I think, the same age as me — and she saw us and gave us a pullover for the young kid, and she gave me her shoes.”

The sisters traveled by foot or on buses run by smugglers from Greece through Macedonia up through Serbia and into Hungary. They were in Budapest in September when Hungarian authorities closed the main train station to refugees. Many, including the Mardini sisters, had spent hundreds of euros on train tickets that they were then prohibited from using, prompting hundreds of refugees to protest outside the station.

“I was just watching,” Mardini said. “I was like: ‘Where am I? And what’s going to happen if they take me to jail now?’”

Eventually they made it out of Hungary, traveling through Austria and finally to Germany, where they ended up in a refugee camp in Berlin sharing a tent with six men they had traveled with.

“I was happy!” Mardini said, adding: “I don’t have any problems. I’m in Germany. I have my sister. That’s it.”

The Mardini sisters spent much of their first German winter waiting in long lines at the main refugee registry point — the State Office of Health and Social Affairs, known by its German acronym, Lageso — to get their asylum papers in order. They often had to wait outside for eight hours in freezing temperatures only to be turned away and told to come back the next day.

“Here in Lageso, I cried more than during the trip,” Mardini said.

At first, getting back in the water was the last thing on her mind, but after some weeks, she said, she began to long for it — especially when she heard a fellow competitor had won a competition in Asia.

“I was like: ‘Mom! Ahh! I should be there! I’m better than her!’” she said.

An Egyptian interpreter who helped out frequently at the refugee camp connected Mardini with nearby Wasserfreunde Spandau, and Sven Spannekrebs, a longtime trainer for the club, agreed to give her a tryout. When he saw Mardini swim, Spannekrebs said, he was impressed.

“The technical foundation was really good,” said Spannekrebs, who joined Mardini in the cafeteria for lunch after her morning swim. “After two years without training, it was just that the aerobic foundation was not good. Her body was in bad shape.”

“I was not that bad!” Mardini said, dropping her cutlery in protest. He shot her an exaggerated look of incredulity. She grinned and conceded, “O.K., 25 days eating Burger King and McDonald’s.”

A Training Scholarship

Not long after he started training Mardini, Spannekrebs became convinced she could be a candidate for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But when they learned the International Olympic Committee might be building a refugee team, he and Mardini realized her Olympic dreams could come true sooner than expected. In January, the committee granted her a training scholarship, and Spannekrebs started Mardini on a rigorous daily schedule: two two-hour sessions in the water and another hour of dry-land aerobic training, with school sessions in between.

“She’s a really tough athlete,” he said.

A medal in Rio is out of reach. Mardini’s fastest times are 1 minute 8 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly and 1:02 in the 100-meter freestyle, a good nine and 11 seconds behind the official Olympic qualifying times for those events.

“I’m expecting personal best,” Mardini said.

Mardini used some of the scholarship money to get an apartment with her sister not too far from the training center. Her parents and her two younger sisters have now joined them in Berlin, and the whole family has been granted temporary asylum.

Mardini posts selfies and inspirational quotations in Arabic and English on her Facebook fan page and on Instagram. She said she was looking forward to meeting some of her favorite athletes in Rio, particularly her childhood idol, Michael Phelps.

Mardini said she would like to use the attention she had received to help other refugees. Eventually she hopes to return to Syria to share her story with people there.

“I remember everything, of course,” she said. “I never forget. But it’s the thing that’s pushing me actually to do more and more.”

She added, “Crying in the corner, that’s just not me.”