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 closes Karolyi Ranch

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USA Gymnastics said it will no longer use the Karolyi Ranch in Texas as its training center, where athletes said Larry Nassar sexually abused gymnasts.

“USA Gymnastics has terminated its agreement with the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas,” USA Gymnastics CEO and president Kerry Perry said in a press release Thursday. “It will no longer serve as the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center.

“It has been my intent to terminate this agreement since I began as president and CEO in December. Our most important priority is our athletes, and their training environment must reflect this. We are committed to a culture that empowers and supports our athletes.

“We have cancelled next week’s training camp for the U.S. Women’s National Team. We are exploring alternative sites to host training activities and camps until a permanent location is determined. We thank all those in the gymnastics community assisting in these efforts.”

MORE: Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

World champions Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols said that Nassar sexually abused gymnasts at the ranch.

“When I was 15 I started to have back problems while at a National Team Camp at the Karolyi Ranch,” Nichols wrote in a victim impact statement read at one of Nassar’s sentencing hearings on Wednesday and published last week. “This is when the changes in his medical treatments occurred.

“I trusted what he was doing at first, but then he started touching me in places I really didn’t think he should. He didn’t have gloves on and he didn’t tell me what he was doing. There was no one else in the room and I accepted what he was doing because I was told by adults that he was the best doctor and he could help relieve my pain.

“He did this ‘treatment’ on me, on numerous occasions.”

Raisman, a three-time Olympic champion, urged USA Gymnastics to close the ranch in a Tuesday interview on ESPN.

“I hope USA Gymnastics listens because they haven’t listened to us so far,” she said. “I hope they listen, and I hope they don’t make any of the girls go back to the ranch. No one should have to go back there after, you know, so many of us were abused there.”

Simone Biles did not specifically name the Karolyi Ranch in her Monday statement, but Raisman said Tuesday that Biles was referring to that site.

“It is impossibly difficult to relive these experiences and it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing at Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused,” was posted on Biles’ social media.

Jamie Dantzscher, a 2000 Olympian, said Nassar was alone with her in her bed at the ranch.

“There was no one else sent with him,” she said on CBS last year. “The treatment was in the bed, in my bed that I slept on at the ranch.”

USA Gymnastics said in July 2016 that it reached an agreement with former national team coordinators Bela and Martha Karolyi to purchase the training facility the couple owned.

The national governing body backed out of the purchase in May “for a variety of reasons” but continued under its current lease agreement while exploring alternative locations for camps. It held national team camps there in September and November.

The Karolyis established the ranch in 1983 after defecting from Romania. It had been a national team training center since 2001.

Larry Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A statement from McKayla Maroney read Thursday repeated that sexual assault by Larry Nassar “left scars” in her mind that may never fade as a judge heard a third day of testimony from victims.

Nassar could be sentenced Friday in Lansing. Since Tuesday, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has been listening to dozens of young women who were molested after seeking his help for injuries.

Aquilina started the hearing Thursday by saying Nassar had written a letter fearing that his mental health wasn’t strong enough to sit and listen to a parade of victims. He called the hearing “a media circus.”

The judge dismissed it as “mumbo jumbo.”

“Spending four or five days listening to them is minor, considering the hours of pleasure you’ve had at their expense, ruining their lives,” Aquilina said.

Nassar, 54, faces a minimum sentence of 25 to 40 years in prison for molesting girls as a doctor for Michigan State University and at his home.

He also was a team doctor at USA Gymnastics for nearly two decades. He’s already been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for child pornography crimes.

“Dr. Nassar was not a doctor,” Maroney said in a statement read by a prosecutor (Maroney’s statement was previously posted in the fall). “He left scars on my psyche that may never go away.”

USA Gymnastics in 2016 reached a financial settlement with Maroney that barred her from making disparaging remarks. But the organization this week said it would not seek any money for her “brave statements.”

A 2000 Olympian, Jamie Dantzscher, looked at Nassar and said, “How dare you ask any of us for forgiveness.”

“Your days of manipulation are over,” she said. “We have a voice. We have the power now.”

Nassar wasn’t the only target. Victims also criticized Michigan State and USA Gymnastics.

Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon attended part of the session Wednesday. The school is being sued by dozens of women, who say campus officials wrote off complaints about the popular doctor.

“Guess what? You’re a coward, too,” current student and former gymnast Lindsey Lemke said Thursday, referring to Simon.

The judge has been praising each speaker and criticizing Nassar.

It’s “about their control over other human beings and feeling like God and they can do anything,” Aquilina said of sex offenders.

On Jan. 31, Nassar will get another sentence for sexual assaults at a Lansing-area gymnastics club in a different county.