Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, swimming.

Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini in the pool. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for the International Olympic Committee.

The Games of the 31st Olympiad begin August 5 on NBC, where elite athletes from around the world compete for pride of family and country. But what about those who can’t compete — those who are without country?

The Olympics have launched an initiative this year where refugees without a home country can participate in the Olympics.  The 10-person refugee Olympic team consists of athletes from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each athlete has braved incredible odds and hardship to make it and compete under the Olympic flag.  

And then there’s Yusra Mardini. Mardini is from Syria, where she rose up the ranks as a top swimmer and represented her country in 2012, at age 14, in a world swimming championship competition.  

In 2014, as the war in Syria worsened, Mardini, with her sister and other Syrian refugees, decided to leave the country. Of the 19.5 million refugees in the world, 25 percent are from Syria — nearly 5 million people. “Our house was destroyed. We don’t have anything anymore,” she told US News & World Report.

They traveled over 1,000 miles, first to Lebanon, then Turkey, and then paid smugglers to take them to a small Greek island.  At first they were stopped by the Turkish coast guard, so they downsized their boat to a six-person dinghy.  While they were out in the middle of the Aegean Sea, the engine on the dinghy stopped working.  Only four of the 20 people on board knew how to swim. So Mardini, her sister, and two others got into the water and, over the next three and a half hours, pushed the dinghy to shore.    

“It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned. I wasn’t going to sit there.”

Their journey wasn’t over. Over the next weeks, they traveled on foot through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. At times they hid from police, and other times they weren’t as lucky, getting arrested at border stops or having trains not allowed through because they were full of refugees.    

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Mardini ended up calling Germany home, where she was joined by her family. There she trained — a lot.  She basically only did schoolwork and training for the next 8 months.  When she first got back into the pool in Germany, her coaches had some hope that she could qualify for the 2012 Olympics in Tokyo. But it soon became clear that she had a shot for 2016.

“I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days. I want to inspire them to do something good in their lives.”

In June, she was selected as one of only 10 refugee athletes to compete in Rio.  You can find her in the 200-meter freestyle.   

“I almost cried,” she said.  Only someone who has been through what Mardini has been through could almost cry about that.  Or maybe it’s because she knows there’s so much more ahead.

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