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Sports Articles: Sporting Fairytales Part 3: Escape To Victory...Of Sorts

Sporting Fairytales Part 3: Escape To Victory...Of Sorts
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Sporting Fairytales Part 3 - Escape To Victory....Of Sorts

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Not every sporting fairytale is about a win against all the odds, sometimes just being able to compete at all is a wonder. The case of Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini's entrance into the 2016 Olympics under the Olympic flag as part of the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team is one of those times.

On the face of it, Mardini's entry into the Olympics should have been straightforward. Her dad, Ezzat, had been on the Syrian national swim team before becoming a swimming coach, and he began putting Yusra and her sister Sara into the pool before they could walk. Even her mother, Mervat's career as a physiotherapist is likely to have been a help. Though Yusra admits she did not take to the sport immediately: "I hated swimming. I used to cry when I was young because the water was cold. My father would force me to swim. I started loving the sport when I was like nine years old or something. I stopped crying. And I realised, 'Oh, I'm faster than the older woman or the older girls.' Slowly but surely I got into the sport. The main reason is that my dad's family, most of them were swimmers. It was just something that you have to do. You didn't choose."

Despite that, she did begin to dream of competing in the Olympics at an early age, after watching Michael Phelps compete in the 2004 Athens Olympics on TV: "I never chose to be a swimmer. But from that moment on I'm hooked. My gut burns with ambition. I clench my fists. I no longer care what it takes. I'll follow Phelps to the top. To the Olympics. To gold. Or die trying." With that dream in her head and her father, who was a disciplinarian, pushing her, her first obstacle to overcome was the disapproval of the local community.

Darayya, the suburb of Damascus that that Mardinis lived in, was a traditional community: "A lot of people don't understand about us swimming. They don't see the hard work and dedication it takes to swim. They just see the swimsuit. Neighbours and parents of kids at our school tell Mum they don't approve. Some say wearing a swimsuit past a certain age is inappropriate for a young girl. Mum ignores them. The summer I'm nine, Mum even decides to learn to swim herself." Yusra carried on regardless of the disapproval and, by 2012, was being supported in her training by the Syrian Olympic Committee. She represented Syria that year in the FINA World Swimming Championship in 3 different events aged 15.

The year before her appearance in the World Swimming Championships civil war had broken out in Syria. Before then Yusra and her sister were just like normal teenagers, shopping and hanging out with friends, watching as the Middle East region began to be engulfed in problems. Trouble erupted in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but Yusra remembered thinking that it would never happen there, until the day it did. It was March 2011 when the tipping point occurred, with the authorities arresting and torturing some teenage school boys who were believed to have scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall. Yusra remembers: "I was on the bus and people started whispering, 'this is what they did to the kids'."

"We were not poor. We didn't live in a desert - we had iPhones. A lot of people have a really bad idea of what a refugee is. Now, if someone comes and says anything about refugees, I am the first defender. I tell them we are normal people." - Yusra

Tanks began to prowl the streets and friends would mysteriously disappear, as Yusra remembers: "It was really horrible for all of us. Sometimes there would be bombing while we were in the pool and my group would have to run out of the water and go downstairs because of what was happening. Sometimes I'd be in the car or in a taxi and my mom would call me and tell me to come back home because she'd heard something was happening." In the early days she would sleep in with her parents or hide under a table when they heard shooting or tanks, in time they began to only notice the mortar shells when they stopped firing.

In 2012, the year after the World Swimming Championships, things took an even darker turn as they returned home from visiting family to find tanks at either end of the street, blocking the way. A soldier held up an assault rifle and tells Ezzat to take his family and leave. Ezzat refuses to leave his house until Mervat asks him to at least get the family to safety. Ezzat drove them away and then got out of the car and set off on foot to return to his house. The family stayed with family until they all got an apartment in a quieter part of town.

That was the start of what became known as the 'Darayya Massacre', as an estimated 1,000 people died in 3 days of fighting in the area. 40 people alone killed by one suicide bomb near Mervat's work, childhood friends were killed and the home they had wanted to return to was destroyed. "There were bomb attacks sometimes that would crack the windows around the pool," Yusra remembers. "We were scared the whole time." At one point a mortar shell slammed into the ground just in front of Yusra and her sister Sara as they were on their way home after training.

They were now all living in a flat in government-controlled Damascus, probably not a moment too soon as a bomb hit the centre she had been training in Darayya, two swimmers were killed, but the Mardinis were not entirely safe. Ezzat vanished one day. They tried to call him, but there was no answer. For a whole day the family had no idea what had happened to him. Paramilitaries had abducted him, strung him up by his feet, beaten and tortured, before they realised he was not the man they were looking for and released him. It is little wonder that soon after he took a coaching job in Jordan and went and lived there, sending salary home each month.

"When I was in Syria I thought, 'Even if I swim my best times and study as hard as I can, will I ever be something? One day my sister and I were walking past a hotel and the hotel glass exploded on us. I didn't get hurt, but you're talking about a child. At this moment we realised, 'we're alive, but are we really living?'" - Yusra

By 2015 Yusra had had enough: "You know, I got to a point where I got sick of it. 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 did, 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...'" After an unexploded RPG crashed through the roof and into the swimming pool that Yusra and Sara trained in, the pair decided to leave Syria.

The sisters found out that one of their dad's cousins was going to Germany and they convinced their parents to let them go with him. In early August 2015, they fled Syria, heading to Lebanon and then from there they went to Turkey. In Turkey they arranged to be smuggled into Greece by boat and Yusra, Sara, their relatives and some other refugees were driven to a forest on the western Turkish coast. Hundreds of refugees were waiting in the sweltering heat, corralled by gangs of armed smugglers. The refugees each had to pay $1500 for the 10-km journey to Lesbos, Yusra and Sara, like so many others, used the family savings to pay for their trip.

They waited almost four days with just a tiny amount of food and water to sustain them before making their first attempt to reach the island of Lesbos. Unfortunately for them, the Turkish coast guard spotted them and drove their boat back to Turkey. At dusk they set out once more, twenty people in a small inflatable dinghy intended for no more than six. The overtaxed motor struggled to push them through the waves, after fifteen minutes the motor could take no more. The waves threatened to capsize it constantly and flooded the bottom with water, making it ride even lower in the water.

"Me and my sister - we knew we could swim it, but we didn't leave the boat because there were people who didn't know how to swim. Sometimes you don't know you can do it until you are in the situation. When you come to the point where you have to do it or die, you will do it." - Yusra

All the passengers threw their luggage overboard to stay afloat, calls to both the Turkish and Greek coastguard were met with dismissal, leaving the refugees alone. With the island tantalisingly close, close enough Yusra and Sara knew they could have chosen to swim there, they and two young men, the only people on the boat who could swim, got out of the boat. Not to leave the other sixteen, which included one baby and a couple of small children, to their own devices, but to tread water while trying to keep the boat afloat. Yusra later recalled: "We were the only four who knew how to swim. 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."

"I was thinking, 'this is my end now'. But I was thinking about the children on the boat more than me. I was feeling sorry about how many people had been forced to do that. Maybe our story was hard, but there were people who had lost their families and this was the only way they had." - Yusra

They had just one small bottle of water between them and eventually exhaustion made them, one by one, have to get back into the boat to rest. Luckily for them all, the motor spluttered back into life and made it the rest of the way to Lesbos, where they could make their way to mainland Europe. In 2015 alone, 3771 people, that we know of, were not so lucky and drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. They arrived in Lesbos with little other than the clothes they stood up in, Yusra had even lost her shoes.

In Lesbos, the refugees were desperate for food and water but the restaurants on the island would not give or sell them anything, even when offered $500 for a drink of water, as they said they were not allowed to sell to them. Yusra and her sister queued for two days for a temporary residency permit which would allow them to buy a ferry ticket to the mainland. It was little better for them in mainland Europe as they mistreated by authorities and scammed by smugglers as they attempted to find their way to Germany.

They walked or paid large sums to smugglers for buses to get them through Macedonia and into Serbia, avoiding local authorities and sleeping in places such as bus shelters, constantly refused food and shelter because they came from Syria. "This was sad because we are trying to find peace, not bring war," Yusra said. "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 over the years. You feel as if you're not human. You feel like you have no country, you're no-one."

The sisters had become part of a group of about 30 refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and all over the Middle East and Yusra remembers it brought them together: "To be honest, before this trip I never believed that people would want to help people without wanting anything from them. This was really, really the biggest lesson I have ever learned. Because we came together....We didn't care what was my colour or his colour; 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 am not hungry but because I am happy sharing it with them. Because I know these people, when I'm hungry, they will give me food, even if they don't have."

On the Serbian border with Hungary, they hid in a cornfield to wait for a chance to sneak across, only to get caught getting on trains at the train station. They were dragged off the train and treated roughly because the sisters found themselves laughing at police threats: "We were going to die in the sea, and now we're going to be afraid of you? They took us to a camp in Hungary, and after that they told us we had to stay for two or three days. We ran away, of course."

A different reception awaited them in Austria: "Everyone was hugging me and giving me small Teddy bears and everything I wanted, even shampoo." They moved from there to a heavily overcrowded refugee camp in Berlin. "To be honest, when we arrived, when we were in Berlin, I was like 'take me back home'. You can't say anything because obviously we appreciate that Germany opened the door for us," said Yusra. "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."

Yusra and Sara tried out for a swimming program with coach Sven Spannenkrebs: "Technically, they were really good, but Yusra's aerobic level was very bad and she had lost her feel for the water." Yusra remembers something else about her early days in Berlin though: "A lot of people were looking at me as this new girl who knows nothing about life. Once someone asked me if I had ever worn a racing suit. I said, 'Dude, I was in a world championship.'" She quickly impressed Sven with her dedication and he offered her a place to stay at the aquatics centre, asking her, "I can see you're serious....the way you're committed to training. Are you doing this because you just like swimming, or because you really want to achieve something?" Yusra's reply was immediate, "I want to go to the Olympics."

Initially though, despite her desire to go to the Olympics, Yusra was not so keen on the idea of a Refugee Olympic Team: "In the beginning I refused to be in a refugee team because I was afraid people would think I got the chance because of my story. I wanted to earn it. But then I realised I had a big opportunity to represent those people - so I took the chance and I never regretted it. Rio was amazing. It was really exciting to see the reaction of people to the team. Now I'm representing millions of displaced people around the world and it really makes me proud."

One of just 10 athletes chosen for the refugee team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Yusra competed in 100m freestyle and 100m butterfly, where she showed that she belonged there. Yusra won her 100m butterfly heat by over a second. While she was not able to bring home a medal, Yusra inspired millions watching around the world, something she admits to being motivated by: "What kept me going is that I wanted to be someone who has dreams; who has hope to actually inspire the world."

Now living in Hamburg, her parents have also managed to move to Germany to join Yusra, her story continues to inspire, which is why the United Nations made her a Goodwill Ambassador for their refugee agency in 2017. Under Armour chose Yusra as one of just 6 athletes in their 'Will finds a way' campaign, and continue to sponsor her. Yusra's story was told in the anthology book 'Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls' and Working Title Films have bought the rights to her life story and are currently producing a film based on it. Her autobiography, 'Butterfly: From Refugee To Olympian - My Story Of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph' was published in 2018.

"My mind is probably 50 years old, but I'm only 22. We've been through a hell of a life, not only the trip, but life in Syria and everything we saw. For me, winning gold, at Tokyo at least, is impossible. But I will always dream about it and I will always work as hard as I can for it. I'm giving everything I have and I'm training as hard as I can. My aim is first to qualify for Tokyo, swim a personal best and just see where this road will take me." - Yusra

Despite it all, Yusra admits she sometimes struggles: "I struggle with the story, to understand why we made it when many others didn't. Each time I hear about a group drowning at sea, it takes me back there, clinging to the boat's rope, desperately treading water." Her sister Sara shows how different life could be, as she missed out on the opportunity to compete through injury.

Sara instead returned to Lesbos to volunteer at the Moria refugee camp, for a while until deciding to return to Germany to complete her university studies. The Greek authorities were not so keen on her leaving again though and arrested her at the airport and she was accused of money laundering, espionage, forgery and breaches of immigration laws. It was even claimed that Sara belonged to a criminal organisation that directly facilitated migrant smugglers for profit. Two other charity workers were also imprisoned under the same charges and Greek police said that a total of 30 Greek and foreign volunteers at the Greek non-governmental organisation Emergency Response Centre International were suspected of involvement.

Sara spent 108 days in pre-trial detention before being released on bail and now faces up to 25 years in jail for, in reality, helping refugees to escape a severely overcrowded refugee camp where life is hellish for the inhabitants. As Sara's lawyer Haris Petsikos explained: "The accusations are more about criminalising humanitarian action. Sara wasn't even here when those alleged crimes took place but as charges they are serious, perhaps the most serious any aid worker has ever faced."

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To read the first part in the Sporting Fairytales series, National Champions, click here.

Written by Tris Burke June 05 2021 09:42:08