Yusra Mardini
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Syria swimmer races at worlds after competing for Olympic refugee team

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Yusra Mardini slept in fear of Hungarian border police on train station floors on her first visit to Budapest when she fled her native Syria two years ago.

Now they protect the 19-year-old swimmer as an Olympic athlete competing at the world championships.

It’s been quite a change.

After her ordeal — she was stuck for a week in Hungary as part of her 25-day journey to Germany — Mardini wasn’t exactly looking forward to coming back to the Hungarian capital.

“I hated the country, I hated the people. I said, ‘I’m gonna come back one day, rich, a normal person, and then I can also enter as a normal person.’ Because I was broken-hearted,” Mardini told The Associated Press in an interview on Sunday.

“It was bad. The situation with the refugees in Hungary – other countries, they handled it, but here it was more complicated.”

Mardini said the aggression she encountered from Hungarian police was the worst, that the people she met were rude, but also that she encountered kindness.

“Now that I’m back I see that the people are all nice, how they are interested in the world championships. The seats are full. I think it’s great,” she said.

On Sunday, Mardini competed in the 100m butterfly heats, clocking 1:07.99, some 12 seconds behind top qualifier and world record holder Sarah Sjostrom. She shaved 1.22 off her time in the same event at the Olympics last year.

Mardini competed in Rio de Janeiro under the Olympic flag for a team of refugees, and again she’s competing as an independent in Budapest as the fighting still rages in her native country. The 200m freestyle provides another opportunity for her Tuesday.

“It’s one of my dreams to compete again for my country. But we will wait to see what will happen,” she said.

The Damascus native had been among Syria’s brightest swimming prospects, competing for the country in both the 200 and 400 freestyle at the 2012 worlds in Istanbul.

The family moved around to avoid the fighting, but eventually the decision was taken to leave Syria altogether as the war intensified with no end in sight. Mardini had already given up swimming long before.

“I was the one who decided not to stop. There was war and so on but I was the one, I saw it wasn’t working any more,” she told the AP. “This was also the reason I left Syria. There was war but I could have lived there. But there was no future anymore.”

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Life had been reduced to mere survival.

“Yesterday she said you didn’t know if you would die at home or on the street,” said Sven Spannenkrebs, Mardini’s first swimming coach in Berlin, who has accompanied her to Budapest for the worlds. “This is war as a normality. For us it’s not normal.”

Mardini and her older sister left Syria in early August 2015, joining the wave of refugees who had lost hope of the conflict ending. They went first to Lebanon, then Turkey, where they paid smugglers to take them to Greece.

Mardini has told the story of their hazardous journey on the Aegean Sea many times, of swimming for her life when the overcrowded inflatable dinghy started taking on water even after their luggage was thrown overboard.

“The engine broke and we had to swim 3+ hours to arrive to the other side. Me and my sister and two guys,” Mardini said. “My sister jumped in the beginning and then I jumped after her. We didn’t swim normally, but we had a hand on the boat and hand swimming and then kicked.”

Through their efforts dragging the boat, they eventually made it to the Greek island of Lesbos. An overland trek followed through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, where she experienced the worst conditions along her weeks-long journey. They hid from police, got arrested at borders, had belongings stolen and lost money on tickets as authorities refused to let trains pass.

“Hungary was awful. It was really hard,” Mardini said. “Hungary was the biggest fear for all the refugees.”

Eventually, the Mardinis made it to Berlin, where an Egyptian translator at their refugee shelter put them in touch with a local swimming club, where they met Spannenkrebs. He quickly realized Mardini’s potential and helped her make the International Olympic Committee’s refugee team for Rio last year.

Mardini still has family in Syria from whom she receives regular updates.

“There is no electricity, no water. There is life, but it’s almost a dead life because you don’t know what’s gonna happen in a minute, in a second,” said Mardini, who is grateful to Germany for giving her the security to pursue her dreams.

“Now it’s also my country. They helped me so much. They have taken care of me and a lot of people. They have opened the door for us,” she said.

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World championships rematches in Birmingham; Diamond League preview

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Several newly crowned world champions headline a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain, on Sunday, live on NBC Sports Gold and The Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA.

Coverage begins on NBC Sports Gold at 8:20 a.m. ET and on the Olympic Channel at 10 a.m.

Many stars made the 125-mile trek northwest from London, where worlds concluded last Sunday, to Birmingham for the last Diamond League meet before the finals in Zurich (Aug. 24) and Brussels (Sept. 1).

They include Allyson FelixMo FarahElaine Thompson and Shaunae Miller-Uibo, plus surprise world champs Emma CoburnPhyllis Francis and Ramil Guliyev.

Here are the Birmingham entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

8:22 a.m. — Women’s Pole Vault
8:31 a.m. — Men’s Long Jump
8:41 a.m. — Women’s 800m
9:30 a.m. — Men’s Mile
9:39 a.m. — Men’s High Jump
9:47 a.m. — Women’s Discus
10:03 a.m. — Women’s 400m Hurdles
10:14 a.m. — Men’s 800m
10:23 a.m. — Men’s 100m
10:28 a.m. — Women’s Triple Jump
10:32 a.m. — Men’s 400m
10:40 a.m. — Women’s 3000m
10:53 a.m. — Men’s Shot Put
10:57 a.m. — Men’s 110m Hurdles
11:08 a.m. — Women’s 100m
11:17 a.m. — Men’s 200m
11:26 a.m. — Women’s 1500m
11:36 a.m. — Women’s 400m
11:45 a.m. — Men’s 3000m

Here are five events to watch:

Women’s 3000m — 10:40 a.m.
Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs, the surprise one-two finishers in the world championships 3000m steeplechase, race without the barriers and water jumps here. The two fastest American steeplers of all time face the two fastest Americans in the 5000m all time — Shannon Rowbury and Molly Huddle.

But the favorite has to be Kenyan Hellen Obiri, who is the fastest woman since 1993 in this non-Olympic event. Obiri dusted 10,000m world-record holder Almaz Ayana with her kick to win the world 5000m crown on Sunday.

Men’s Shot Put — 10:53 a.m.
Ten of the top 11 finishers from worlds are here, including the medalists — Tomas Walsh (NZL), Joe Kovacs (USA) and Stipe Žunić (CRO).

Nobody has been more impressive this season than Olympic champion Ryan Crouser, who will look to make up for his shocking sixth-place finish from London. Crouser owns five of the world’s top six throws in 2017, including a 22.65-meter heave at the USATF Outdoor Championships. That’s two feet farther than Walsh’s world title-winning throw.

Women’s 100m — 11:08 a.m.
An interesting field will race in two heats to qualify for this final. It does not include Tori Bowie, who in London became the first American woman to take a global 100m crown since 2005.

But it does include Olympic 100m champion Elaine Thompson, who earned zero medals at worlds while reportedly slowed by a stomach illness and an Achilles problem. World 100m silver and bronze medalists Marie-Josée Ta Lou and Dafne Schippers are also in the field.

Two Olympic champions making their Diamond League 100m debuts are Sally Pearson, the 2012 Olympic 100m hurdles gold medalist, and Rio 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo.

Men’s 200m — 11:17 a.m.
Who would have thought six months ago that a Diamond League 200m without Usain BoltAndre De GrasseWayde van Niekerk or Justin Gatlin would be one of the headline events?

After the surprise at worlds, this one is intriguing. Turkey’s Ramil Guliyev is entered after winning an out-of-nowhere gold medal in London. He’ll face a man with reason to carry a chip on his shoulder — Botswana’s Isaac Makwala. Makwala has the fastest 200m time in the world this year but finished sixth at worlds, likely in part due to his medical controversy and having to run an extra 200m heat alone the night before the final.

Women’s 400m — 11:36 a.m.
The three world medalists return here, hopefully to race in better weather conditions. American Phyllis Francis surpassed Allyson Felix and a stumbling Miller-Uibo to claim gold on a wet, chilly night in London last week in the slowest world championships-winning time ever. Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Naser clipped Felix for silver, with Miller-Uibo falling to fourth.

Felix still owns the fastest time in the world this year and, with Miller-Uibo choosing to race the 100m in Birmingham, is a quarter of a second faster than anyone in this field in 2017.

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U.S., Great Britain to hold track and field dual meet

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The U.S. and Great Britain go head-to-head in a track and field meet on July 21 at the London Olympic Stadium.

“The Meet” will include nine running, jumping, hurdles and relay events and last two hours. Specific events and athletes will be announced early next year.

The U.S. topped the overall medal standings at every Olympics and world outdoor championships since 2004.

Great Britain is one of three countries to earn at least five medals at every Olympics and worlds since 2007, joining the U.S. and Kenya.

British athletes made six podiums at the just-completed worlds at the London Olympic Stadium, including in all four relays. The other two medals came from Mo Farah, who is moving to road racing and marathons after this season.

“The Meet” is similar to swimming’s “Duel in the Pool,” a biennial head-to-head competition between the U.S. and rival Australia from 2003 through 2007 and between the U.S. and Europe between 2009 and 2015.

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