I first swim before I could walk.
My dad, Ezzat, a swimming coach, just puts me in the water. I’m not yet big enough for armbands, so he removes the plastic grate from the gutter overflow at the pool’s edge and plonks me into the shallow water underneath.
Swimming is the family passion and Dad expects us to share it. All Dad’s siblings trained when they were young and Dad swam for Syria when he was a teenager, but had to stop after being called up for compulsory military service. When my older sister Sara was born, he returned to the pool as a coach.
The summer I’m six, we watch the closing races of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. It’s the men’s 100m butterfly final. “Watch lane four,” says Dad. “Michael Phelps. The American.” At twenty-five metres to go, Phelps starts sprinting twice as fast. He gains on Ian Crocker, another American. It’s so close.
Phelps and Crocker thwack the touch pad. It’s Phelps. He’s snatched gold from Crocker by four hundredths of a second. 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.
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A lot of people don’t understand 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. Dad encourages her and eventually trains her himself.
I never wanted my country to fall apart. I would do anything to turn back the clock. I keep hoping, praying, that the situation will calm down again, but the killing only gets worse. We hear stories about people from school dying in random airstrikes. Kids my age, killed by stray shrapnel in their beds as they slept. In the beginning, the fear eats me up inside, not knowing if I’ll be next. And then, without me really noticing, the deaths become normal.
Lots of people are moving into Damascus, fleeing the fighting in the suburbs. There’s good money to be made from the housing crisis. Dad searches the city for an affordable apartment in a quiet, safe area, but the options are limited. Damascus is full.
One evening I’m in the pool, pushing myself as hard as I can. My face is burning against the cool water. I reach out and grab the end of the pool, resting for a few seconds. My shoulders jerk up towards my ears in alarm as a splitting crash thunders around the pool. There’s a moment of silence. Then the swimmers spring into action, screaming and shouting as they splash over each other to reach the sides. I reach the exit and turn back. I look up to the ceiling and spot a ragged hole in the roof. I look down at the water below. There, shimmering on the bottom of the pool, is a metre-long, thin, green object. It’s an unexploded RPG. Somehow, it had ploughed through the roof and landed in the water without exploding. A few metres in either direction and it would have hit the tiles, killing everyone within a ten-metre radius. It takes a few seconds to sink in. I’m lucky to be alive. Again.
I had to leave my home to survive, even if it meant risking death along the way. I fled my country three years ago. No one chooses to be a refugee, but as you read this, other young people are chancing dangerous border-crossings, climbing into overcrowded, flimsy boats, or being locked up and thrown food unfit for animals. They, like me, were normal kids with ordinary lives until war split their worlds apart.
Three days before my eighteenth birthday, the International Olympic Committee puts out an announcement. A Refugee Olympic Team, ROT, will march behind the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics. Up to ten athletes will be on the team, chosen from a longlist of forty-three potential team members.
And I was on the list.
I was asked what I learned on my journey to Europe. That’s easy. I learned perspective. Olympian or not, as long as I can’t go home, I’ll still wear that other nametag: refugee. After the Rio Olympics I learned to embrace that word. I don’t see it as an insult. It’s just a name for ordinary people who were forced to flee their homes. Like me, like my family.
Yusra Mardini is a former refugee, Olympic swimmer, Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and author of Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph, out now
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