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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USA Gymnastics settles sex abuse lawsuit

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — USA Gymnastics has reached a confidential settlement in a Georgia lawsuit that spurred a newspaper investigation into the organization’s practices for reporting child abuse.

A former gymnast filed the lawsuit against USA Gymnastics in 2013, alleging that the organization that trains Olympians received at least four warnings about coach William McCabe, who videotaped her in various states of undress.

The lawsuit revealed that USA Gymnastics wouldn’t forward child sex abuse allegations to authorities unless they were in writing and signed by a victim or a victim’s parent.

A judge in Effingham County, Georgia, dismissed the lawsuit on April 12, according to court records. USA Gymnastics admits no wrongdoing or liability in the settlement, said W. Brian Cornwell of Cornwell & Stevens LLP, the gymnast’s lawyer.

Both parties have declined to comment on the settlement.

“We want to make it clear that the settlement does not prevent the former gymnast from speaking publicly about her experiences,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement Thursday.

McCabe pleaded guilty in Georgia in 2006 to federal charges of sexual exploitation of children and making false statements. He’s serving a 30-year prison sentence.

The suit sparked The Indianapolis Star’s investigation of USA Gymnastics, which exposed abuse by Larry Nassar, a former Michigan State University sports doctor, and spurred the resignations of the organization’s president and board.

Nassar, 54, pleaded guilty to molesting patients and possessing child pornography. He was sentenced this year to prison terms that will keep him locked up for life after roughly 200 women gave statements against him in two courtrooms over 10 days.

USA Gymnastics faces additional lawsuits from women who say Nassar sexually abused them. The suits allege the organization was negligent, fraudulent and intentionally inflicted emotional distress by failing to warn or protect athletes from Nassar’s abuse. The organization has denied the allegations and wants the lawsuits dismissed.

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Max Aaron retires from figure skating

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Max Aaron, a national champion and Skate America winner, has retired from competitive figure skating.

Aaron, 26, ends his career as the only Skate America men’s winner not to compete in an Olympics. He is one of three U.S. men’s champions in the last 55 years not to compete in an Olympics, along with Ryan Bradley and Rudy Galindo.

“Of course, becoming an Olympian, or having an Olympic medal would have been great to say, ride off on my white horse, but having the ability to say that I have no regrets in my entire career of figure skating, for me that is my gold medal,” Aaron said Thursday night.

Aaron, a former top USA Hockey developmental player, also figure skated growing up to help with his skating skills as one of the smaller players on his team.

He stopped playing hockey at 16 due to a broken vertebra but continued full-time with figure skating. By 2012, Aaron considered quitting figure skating after placing eighth at nationals (one year after being U.S. junior champion) and being told he wasn’t artistic enough.

But Aaron kept with it and completed a remarkable bounce back the next year, winning the U.S. title and setting himself up as a favorite to make the 2014 Olympic team.

But Aaron ended up third at the 2014 U.S. Championships. The two Sochi Olympic spots went to Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown.

Aaron continued, becoming the first U.S. man to win Skate America in six years in 2015 and topping the short program at the 2016 U.S. Championships before ultimately finishing second to Adam Rippon.

Aaron plummeted to ninth at the 2017 U.S. Championships, coming back from offseason hernia surgery, but returned to the Olympic team radar last fall with a personal-best free skate at Cup of China, including three landed quadruple jumps. He went into the 2018 U.S. Championships ranking third among American men for the season.

But Aaron was again ninth at nationals, missing the Olympic team. He was called on to compete at last month’s world championships as the third alternate after Rippon, Ross Miner and Brown all passed.

Aaron had stopped skating and instead was training for a triathlon. He went to worlds in Milan on two weeks of training and finished 11th, a result that helped the U.S. keep three men’s spots for 2019 Worlds. Nathan Chen won the world title, but Vincent Zhou was 14th. The U.S. needed its second man to be 12th or better to go along with Chen’s first place to ensure three spots next year. Aaron reportedly said at worlds that it may have been his last competition.

Aaron said he’s started a job with Merrill Lynch.

“It’s really been a great ride. I have no regrets,” he said. “That’s one thing that I always told myself, in sport, in life, I want to have no regrets, and I can honestly say, with the help from my coaches and friends, that I have no regrets in the sport.”

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