When the motor on their dinghy broke down, Yusra Mardini jumped in and started pushing.
This profile is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
You’re on a sinking boat—what would you do? It may sound like a hypothetical question to most people, but it was a very real one for Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer who helped rescue fellow refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea during a traumatic journey from Turkey to Greece.
Around 15 minutes into the trip, the engine of the crammed, inflatable dinghy failed, and the 20 passengers, including Yusra and her older sister Sara, found themselves facing almost certain death. Most of the others couldn’t swim, so that terrifying night it fell to the Mardinis and two young men to jump overboard into cold, rough waters and push the boat to land—a Herculean effort that took nearly four hours.
Yusra narrates the story in her new book, Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian—My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph. “Either we drown, or we arrive,” she recalls thinking to herself. “Just survive, stay alive another five minutes. Let your body take over. Trust it.”
Trusting her body is something Yusra, now 20, has had to learn how to do as an athlete, but it hasn’t always been possible. In 2016, only months after her harrowing trip, she swam at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as part of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team.
“I didn’t accept the idea at the beginning… the idea of being a refugee,” she says now. “But then, slowly, I saw how much people believed in me, how people respected our stories, and how much people cheered for us. I felt I had a responsibility not only to one country, but the whole world.”
Yusra competed in the 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly. And while she didn’t advance to the semi-finals in either event, she became a symbol of hope around the globe, later being named the youngest-ever Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and one of Time magazine’s 30 Most Influential Teens of 2016.
But looking back, Yusra says, she wasn’t prepared for the immense physical challenge of competing in the Olympics so soon after her journey. “To be honest, I was not trusting my body 100%,” she explained during a recent interview from Berlin, Germany, where she eventually settled and now lives. (Her whole family has been granted temporary asylum there.) “I trusted my heart more than I trusted my body back then. My body was not ready because of the trip… I slept on the ground; that was bad for my back. I ate unhealthy food, I didn’t drink enough water, I slept in the cold. My body was destroyed.”
To be a top athlete, she adds, “you need to focus mentally, you need to take care of what you’re eating, you need to keep your body healthy. Even if it’s summer and a little bit windy, you need to wear a hat as a swimmer, for example. You have to be fully concentrated on swimming. One different thing about what you’re doing, maybe it’s going to make you waste one week of training… We work years for one race that’s one minute.”
Fleeing her country, Yusra wasn’t able to take care of herself the way she’d been brought up to in Damascus. Along with her sister, she began training with their father, a swimming coach, at the age of 3. The pool was his kingdom. “He was the king, and we were like the princesses,” Yusra says, but both parents “taught us how to be strong, how to dream, to mind our own business and concentrate on our goals.”
Their father, in particular, used a tough-love approach, treating them “like soldiers,” at times. “I think he was just trying to protect us,” Yusra says. “He was afraid we would go out into the normal community and see how people would treat us, because we were girls, and it’s hard in our community in Syria—it’s hard to be an independent woman.”
In 2011, Yusra was 13 years old when war broke out in Syria. Suddenly, her routine was upended, and her family’s kingdom—the pool—was no longer a safe space. “It was dangerous to train,” she says. “There were bomb attacks at the pool… Some people died at the football grounds, and it was really hard because we had to run out of the pool, go out to the cabins and wait there. The coaches were freaking out, my mom was calling.”
Her family’s home was destroyed in a massacre in 2012, and after years of more violence, in August of 2015, Yusra and her sister finally left with two relatives and a family friend, flying from Damascus to Beirut, Lebanon, and then to Istanbul, where they joined up with a group of smugglers and other refugees to begin their now-infamous escape.
Today, Yusra can hardly believe the story herself. “I don’t know how I got the courage to do all of that,” says the athlete, who’s currently training for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games, swimming 20 hours a week and going to the gym. She has her eye on the future, but she can’t help but think of the home she left behind. “It is hard for me because of what’s happening in Syria, and I can’t go back to my country,” she says.
For now, Yusra is enjoying Berlin. “People are very nice. I like the culture here. People are helping me with the language, and my schedule is full."
Does she have a favorite word in German? “Glücklich,” she says. “It means happy.”