Resilience is the capacity that allows some people to bounce back after being knocked down by life. Instead of becoming a victim of adversity, they find a way to come back from the ashes. Yusra Mardini, an 18-year-old Syrian woman swimmer, who just won the opening heat of the 100m butterfly at the Rio Olympic Games, is the perfect illustration of resilience.
In the summer of 2015 Yusra and her sister Sarah had fled their home in Damascus until they reached Izmir in Turkey via Beirut and Istanbul. After paying smugglers in Izmir, they were able to find room in a dinghy about to cross the Mediterranean into Greece.
Their first attempt to leave failed, however, when the Turkish Coastguard turned their boat around. So they tried again, and boarded a small inflatable dinghy at dusk. Thirty minutes after leaving, however, the dinghy’s motor stopped, and the fragile boat, carrying 20 people, threatened to capsize.
Only three people were able to enter the water and drag the dinghy towards the shore, among them were Yusra and Sarah. They didn’t hesitate. “I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea, because I am a swimmer,” said Yusra.
Undeterred by the waves and exhaustion, the Mardini sisters and another strong swimmer were able to bring the boat to safety. They reached the Greek island of Lesbos, and after a week-long trek through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary, they made it to Austria and then reached Germany.
Soon afterwards, Yusra began training for the Rio Olympics and was chosen for the International Olympic Committee’s refugee team. She trained at the facility originally built to host the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
“Since arriving in Berlin, I have been humbled by the warm welcome I’ve received from the swimming community and everyone associated with the Olympic Games. It means so much to me to have a partner that accepts me, includes me, and provides me with the same opportunities as other athletes competing in Rio,” said Yusra through a VISA press release, one of the team’s sponsors.
Looking at the sea from the plane on her way to Rio probably brought Yusra sad memories of her ordeal at sea. But it may have also brought her renewed strength and determination to perform well at the Olympic Games. It made her experience at the games a specially rewarding one.
Yusra joined the Olympic team under the “refugee” umbrella, and her team entered the stadium with a standing ovation. She and nine other Team Refugee Olympic athletes entered the Opening Ceremony as the last delegation before the host nation.
Yusra won her preliminary heat (the best competitive times of all entrants), made up of swimmers from Grenada, Yemen, Rwanda and Qatar, in the 100m butterfly. Although she didn’t swim fast enough to advance to the semifinal, she has entered in the 100m freestyle, where the preliminary heat begins on Wednesday.
This experience has made Yusra even more determined. Now she is looking beyond the Rio Olympic Games, declaring to the press, “I hope for more in Tokyo,” the site of the 2020 Olympic Games.
César Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is a global public health consultant for several U.N. and other international agencies. He has carried out health-related missions in 50 countries worldwide. He lives in New York and writes extensively on human rights and foreign policy issues, and is the recipient of awards from Overseas Press Club of America, ADEPA, and Chaski, and recently received the Cedar of Lebanon Gold Medal. He is also the author of several U.N. official publications on health issues.
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