Yusra Mardini
Under Armour

‘I shouldn’t be alive:’ Olympic refugee team swimmer stars in powerful video

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Olympic refugee team swimmer Yusra Mardini signed with Under Armour and starred in a video published by the apparel company Thursday, telling her story of fleeing Syria in August 2015.

“I shouldn’t be alive today,” Mardini said in the video. “I should have been killed by the bomb that hit the pool in Damascus. I should have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. I should have been one of the many refugees who died along the way, but I am here, alive, because I kept moving. So many things tried to stop me, to break me. So many times something whispered, ‘This, now this, will defeat you.’ But I kept moving. Moving as I left my family behind. Moving through the fear when I was hiding in the forest. Moving through the sea, pulling a boat through the waves. Now, when my exhaustion rises, I remember. And my strength just rises higher. It says greater things than this have tried to stop me, and I keep moving.”

Mardini, 19, swam in Rio about one year after swimming for her life for three hours in the Aegean Sea while fleeing Damascus for Europe. She was one of 10 athletes on the Olympic refugee team.

In fleeing, Mardini, her sister and others 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 three-plus 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. A coach quickly realized Mardini’s potential and helped her make the International Olympic Committee’s refugee team for Rio.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Emma Coburn, Sam Kendricks win USATF Athlete of the Year awards

Emma Coburn, Sam Kendricks
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Emma Coburn and Sam Kendricks followed Rio Olympic bronze medals with their first world titles in August. And now, they both won USATF Athlete of the Year honors.

Coburn, 27, took the female award named after Jackie Joyner-Kersee after becoming the first American woman to bag 3000m steeplechase gold at the Olympics or worlds.

Coburn led an emotional U.S. one-two with Courtney Frerichs in London on Aug. 11 (video here). She broke the American record (by five seconds) and the world championships record by winning in 9:02.58.

Kendricks, 25, captured the Jesse Owens Award after an undefeated season that included the first Olympic or world pole vault title by an American man in 10 years.

The first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve won all 17 of his competitions in 2017, clearing six meters for the first time. No American had eclipsed that barrier since 2008.

Coburn and Kendricks won the USATF honors over the likes of fellow world champions Justin Gatlin and Tori Bowie (100m), Christian Taylor (triple jump), Phyllis Francis (400m), Kori Carter (400m hurdles) and Brittney Reese (long jump). Plus Shalane Flanagan and Galen Rupp, who each won World Marathon Majors this fall.

Rio gold medalists Michelle Carter (shot put) and Matthew Centrowitz (1500m) won the awards last year.

Coburn is the first steeplechaser to take home a USATF Athlete of the Year award. They’ve been handed out since 1981.

Kendricks joined 2000 Olympic champion Stacy Dragila as the only pole vaulters to earn the honor.

More from USATF on the awards here.

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Jana Novotna, Wimbledon champ and Olympic medalist, dies at 49

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PRAGUE (AP) — Jana Novotna, who won the hearts of the tennis world when she sobbed on the shoulder of a member of the British royal family after a heartbreaking loss in the Wimbledon final, has died at the age of 49.

The WTA announced Novotna’s death on Monday, saying she died Sunday in her native Czech Republic following a long battle with cancer.

Novotna died “peacefully, surrounded by her family,” the women’s tennis body said.

Her family confirmed her death to the Czech Republic’s CTK news agency. No details were given.

Martina Navratilova, the tennis great who was also born in what was then Czechoslovakia, tweeted: “The tennis world is so sad about the passing of Jana Novotna. I am gutted and beyond words. Jana was a true friend and an amazing woman.”

Novotna won her only Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon in 1998, eventually triumphing after two losses in the final at the All England Lawn Tennis Club in 1993 and 1997.

She added three Olympic tennis medals — singles bronze at Altanta 1996 (knocking out top seed Monica Seles) and doubles silver in 1988 and 1996 with Helena Sukova.

She also lost in the 1991 Australian Open final.

While she finally captured the Grand Slam singles title she longed for in 1998, she won over the Wimbledon crowd five years earlier after wasting a big lead in the decisive set in a tough three-set loss to Steffi Graf.

Unable to hide her disappointment, Novotna cried on the shoulder of Britain’s Duchess of Kent at the prize giving ceremony and was gently comforted by the royal, who told her: “I know you will win it one day, don’t worry.”

Novotna ultimately had her moment five years later when she beat Nathalie Tauziat in straight sets to win Wimbledon. At the time, she was the oldest first-time winner of a Grand Slam singles title at age 29.

There wear tears again from Novotna, this time of joy, and the Duchess of Kent was present again to congratulate her.

“She was a true champion in all senses of the word, and her 1998 triumph will live long in the memory,” Wimbledon organizers the All England Club said in tribute to Novotna. “The thoughts of all those at Wimbledon are with her family and friends.”

Fellow Czech and four-time Grand Slam champion Hana Mandlikova, who coached Novotna for her Wimbledon win, said: “It’s hard to find words. Jana was a great girl and I’m happy that she won Wimbledon after all. It’s so sad when someone so young dies.”

During a 14-year professional career, Novotna won 24 singles titles and reached a career-high No. 2 in the singles rankings in 1997. She was a prolific and top-ranked doubles player, collecting 16 slam titles in doubles and mixed doubles.

She also won the Fed Cup with her country in 1988. Novotna was inducted into tennis’ Hall of Fame in 2005.

Even after retiring in 1999, Novotna was desperate to stay involved in tennis and became a commentator and coach.

“I’m dependent on tennis,” she said in an interview two years ago. “A day without it would be terrible.”

Members of the current Czech Fed Cup team said Novotna “supported us in the stands any time she could be there. We’ll miss her.”

“Jana was an inspiration both on and off court to anyone who had the opportunity to know her,” WTA chief executive Steve Simon said. “Her star will always shine brightly in the history of the WTA.”