When Yusra Mardini swims, she clears her mind of everything. She forgets the hours spent training, the threat of her competitors and the pressure upon her as this summer's Rio Olympics draws near. She ignores the tired muscles, the knots in her stomach and the fear of injury which could see her hopes of a medal dashed. But unlike her fellow Olympians, the 18-year-old also has to try and forget the day last year when she spent three hours thrashing about in a cold sea saving her own life and that of 17 others.
She has to block out memories of petrified people, unable to swim, clinging to the side of a precarious dinghy and fervently praying they would not die on the dangerous journey from Turkey to Lesbos in Greece. She has to forget the six-year-old boy peering anxiously over the side of the boat, his life in her hands, as she pushed that teetering vessel to safety. And she has to erase the recollection of bombs falling on her country, killing tens of thousands and making life unbearable.
For Yusra is not only an athlete, selected for this year's brand-new Refugee Olympic Team, she also happens to be one of the many hundreds of thousands who have fled their homes in war-torn Syria. As she describes her perilous journey on that boat to safe refuge in Germany, she is so calm and composed you cannot quite believe what she is saying.
It was quite hard to think that you’re a swimmer and you’re going to end up dying in the water which you know the best
Lounging in a soft grey hoody and black leggings with her long brown hair – still wet from training – scraped up into a bun, she gives a broad smile as she relives her ordeal while being filmed for the International Olympic Committee. Perhaps it is more of a nervous grin, but it is more likely that this extraordinary woman refuses to let life and all that it has thrown at her get her down. She will not be seen as a victim. This smile – her most striking feature – is so open, revealing an easy charm and clear joy at how life has turned out. Recounting her story by the side of a swimming pool where she now trains and lives in Berlin, the teenager has a remarkable tale to tell.
Introduced to the water by her father at the age of three, Yusra rose to become a top swimmer in Syria, competing at the World Championships in Turkey in 2012, aged only 14. But as quickly as they had been built up, her dreams of athletic greatness fell apart, as her home was ravaged by war. Attempts to swim were jeopardised as Damascus was strafed by bombs.
“Sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war, or sometimes you had training and there was a bomb in the swimming pool,” she says. "You could see the roof, where three or four places were open to the sky, and we turned back.”
Her own home was destroyed and conditions became so bad that she and her sister Sarah decided to flee, travelling through Lebanon to Turkey, to make the short hop by sea across to Europe in the spring of 2015. There they paid people smugglers to secure two places on a boat. An overcrowded dinghy as it turns out, which was designed for six, but had 20 passengers on board. Three of them could swim. So when the boat’s engine cut out 30 minutes into the journey, still some way from the shore of the island of Lesbos, she was left with little choice.
Before climbing aboard, Sarah had advised her not to help anyone and to focus on her own survival if anything were to go wrong. But within moments of the motor falling silent, both girls and another woman were in the water kicking, pulling, pushing and doing all they could to guide the precarious vessel to safety.
For more than three hours they battled against the sea, an experience which has left Yusra still terrified of the open water. “It was quite hard to think that you’re a swimmer and you’re going to end up dying in the water which you know the best,” she recalls. “When I was in the water everyone was praying on the boat and they were telling me ‘you’re a really courageous girl’. I was like ‘just shut up leave me alone now.’”
It was while she was ploughing through the waves that she noticed the fearful young boy watching her. “Actually I had to be funny even so close to death because [of the boy]. I had to do some smiley faces at him. Why? Because I didn’t want him to think we were dying.” Pausing while pushing a boat filled with 17 people to pull funny faces so a young child won’t get scared shows a strength of character which has seen Yusra do so well since that day.
Upon arrival in Greece, she and her sister continued their journey on foot through Hungary and Serbia, at one point fleeing a pursuing policeman across a cornfield.
After almost a month they reached Germany, found safe haven and eventually were reunited with her parents and younger sister. At last she she was able to return her thoughts to swimming and competing.
But an extraordinary background does not mean automatic selection to the biggest sporting event on the globe. After months of training, she was included on a shortlist of 43 athletes to be among the International Olympic Committee’s 10-strong refugee team
A lengthy lapse in training prompted by the civil war meant she was considerably behind her competitors and had to concentrate on building up her stamina. What she did have in her favour, however, was her impressive technique, immediately spotted by her German coach Sven Spannekrebs. “In the pool she has to get better in the aerobic section and in the power section, but her technical foundation is really good – we just have to stabilise it," he says. “Outside the pool she just has to be like she is."
At the beginning of this month, Yusra’s hard work paid off and she learned that she will compete at Rio in the 100 metres freestyle. As a member of Team Refugee, she will walk behind the Olympic flag and use the Olympic hymn as her national anthem at the opening ceremony. Beside her will be fellow team members hailing from Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Syria, all with stories to tell. Four of the squad are women.
When you’re an athlete you do not think if you’re Syrian, or from London or Germany, you just think about your race. You have your lane, your swimming cap, your swimming clothes and that’s it
Yusra’s experience has started to catch the world’s attention, something else she has taken easily in her stride. Setting up her own Facebook account, she was thrilled when her followers reached 4,000 and it seems implausible that that figure won't climb a great deal higher.
As an ambassador for life and sport, corporate sponsors would be hard pushed to find a better example and she has been snapped up by some of the bigger names in business, Visa among them.
There is talk of Syria trying to reclaim Yusra as its own, if she does well. But she brushes off any talk of politics very quickly: "When you’re an athlete you do not think if you’re Syrian, or from London or Germany, you just think about your race. You have your lane, your swimming cap, your swimming clothes and that’s it. I think of the water as just you, the water, and your competitors.
"I want to show everybody that it’s hard to arrive at your dreams but it’s not impossible. You can do it; everyone can do it if I can do it, any athlete can do it.
It feels great to inspire a lot of people and to go through your own dream too, which has been my dream since I was 10 years old.
When stepping out to compete in August, she says: "I think I will think about my family and my coach, my friends and everyone who’s helped me and I will think how proud I am that I did it... I think I will be crying, too.”
Safe to say, she won’t be the only one.