Yusra Mardini
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Syria swimmer hopes to represent refugees at Rio Olympics

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BERLIN (AP) — One year after swimming for her life in Greek coastal waters, Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini could be swimming at the Olympics.

The 18-year-old is hoping to be selected for a small team of refugees that will compete under the Olympic flag in Rio de Janeiro in August.

“I want refugees to be proud of me,” Mardini said Friday. “I just want to encourage them.”

She fled Damascus with her older sister Sarah last August and survived a hazardous crossing on the Aegean Sea to reach Europe.

Now she trains at a pool built for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. She is among 43 refugees from different countries in contention for the International Olympic Committee’s “Refugee Olympic Athletes” team, which is likely to consist of between five to 10 members.

“We help them to make their dream of sporting excellence come true, even when they have to flee war and violence,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a video message shown at Friday’s news conference.

A final decision on the team members will be made by the IOC in June.

The Mardini sisters were among Syria’s brightest swimming stars until the war interrupted their progress. The family had been moving around to avoid the fighting so their daughters could continue swimming, but the war intensified and eventually the decision was taken to leave altogether.

“Our house was destroyed. We don’t have anything anymore,” said Yusra Mardini, who has since been joined by the rest of her family in Berlin.

The sisters left Damascus in early August, joining a wave of Syrian refugees who had lost hope of the conflict ending soon. They made their may to Lebanon and then Turkey, where they paid smugglers to take them to Greece.

Their first attempt was thwarted when Turkish coastguards drove their boat back so they tried again, boarding a small inflatable dinghy at dusk. There were 20 people crowded onto the boat, all but three of whom couldn’t swim. Within half an hour, the boat was taking on water.

All the passengers’ bags were thrown overboard in an effort to stay afloat as wind churned up the Aegean Sea. But it wasn’t enough. As a last resort, Yusra, Sarah and another strong swimmer jumped into the water to give the boat more buoyancy.

“This was awful. We were thinking, it would be a shame if we didn’t help the people who were with us, because there were people with us who couldn’t swim,” Yusra Mardini said. “Of course, I hated the sea after that. It was a really tough experience.”

For 3 1/2 hours they clung to the side of the small boat until it reached the Greek island of Lesbos. A weeks-long overland trek followed through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. They had to hide from police in cornfields to reach Hungary.

“A lot of people were caught,” Mardini said.

Strangers gave them clothes, others stole from them. They were arrested at borders and lost money on expensive tickets as authorities refused to let trains full of refugees pass.

Yet their spirits remained high. Police who stopped them asked them why they were laughing.

“We said, because we were going to die in the sea, and now we got to be afraid of you?” Mardini said.

Eventually, the sisters made it to Austria and then Germany. Shortly after arriving in Berlin, an Egyptian translator at their refugee shelter put them in touch with Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, a local swimming club, where they were introduced to coach Sven Spannekrebs.

Spannekrebs said he was surprised by Yusra Mardini’s remarkable progress and that she has a good shot of qualifying for the IOC’s refugee team.

“For the last five months, her progress has been really, really good, better than I expected. We’re on a good path, looking forward to the next weeks,” Spannekrebs said.

They were initially working toward reaching the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo but such was her progress that “everything moved a little faster than we thought. Now, if it happens it happens,” Spannekrebs said. “A lot of athletes can take her as an example. She’s really focused in training, mostly.”

Her daily schedule involves school, training, more school and more training. She is determined to make the most of her opportunity, especially after what she’s been through in the last few months.

“It’s quite hard to leave your homeland. It’s not only me experiencing this, but a lot of people from my country, thousands, so that makes it easier. We’re supporting each other,” said Mardini, whose greatest hope of qualifying is in the 200-meter freestyle. “It’s the chance of a lifetime, a really nice chance and I think I have to work hard for that.”

If she makes it to Rio, she looks forward to meeting her old Syrian teammates and friends.

“We were talking about it and it was like, `Yeah I’ll see you again,” Yusra said. “All the athletes want to get to the Olympics. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Syrian or Olympic flag. I think I’m just going to be an athlete girl.”

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Mondo Duplantis, Sandi Morris miss attempts at pole vault records

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Sweden’s Mondo Duplantis and U.S. athlete Sandi Morris took turns attempting world records in the pole vault Wednesday at the Meeting d’Athlétsime Hauts-de-France Pas-de-Calais meet at Arena Stade Regional in Liévin, France, but both were unable to clear the bar.

Duplantis, aiming to set the world record for third time in February, had no misses leading up to his record attempts. U.S. vaulter Sam Kendricks, who has won the last two world championships, cleared 5.90m but dropped out after one attempt at 5.95m. Duplantis passed on that height, then cleared 6.07m to warm up for his shot at 6.19m, just shy of 20 feet, 3 3/4 inches.

Morris’ attempt to tie Jennifer Suhr‘s world indoor record of 5.03m from 2016 was more of a surprise. Morris holds the U.S. outdoor record at 5.00m but had never done better than 4.95m indoors. She won Wednesday’s competition with a clearance of 4.83m and asked to go immediately to 5.03m, or 16 feet, 6 inches.

Yelena Isinbayeva still holds the outdoor record of 5.06m, set in 2009. Morris is second on the all-time list and is the only athlete other than Isinbayeva or Suhr to clear 5 meters either indoors or outdoors.

In the men’s pole vault, Duplantis’ clearance of 6.18m Feb. 15 in Glasgow is the best vault indoors or outdoors.  Sergey Bubka still has the highest clearance outdoors at 6.14m. Bubka also held the indoor record of 6.15m for more than 20 years, finally losing it to Renaud Lavillenie in 2014. Duplantis cleared 6.17m Feb. 9 in Poland, then added another centimeter last week in Glasgow.

READ: Duplantis raises record in Glasgow

Duplantis, Lavillenie and Bubka are the only vaulters to clear 20 feet. Kendricks cleared 6.06m, or 19-10 1/2, last summer, the highest outdoor clearance by anyone other than Bubka.

Duplantis grew up in Louisiana and attended LSU for one year, setting the NCAA indoor (5.92m) and outdoor (6.00m) before turning pro, though he was upset in the NCAA final by South Dakota junior Chris Nilsen.

Also at Wednesday’s meet:

Ronnie Baker ran 6.49 seconds in the 60m semifinals and lowered that to 6.44 in the final, second only to Christian Coleman this season. Demek Kemp finished second and tied his personal best of 6.50.

Nia Ali and Christina Clemons finished 1-2 in the women’s 60m hurdles with identical times of 7.92. Ali is the reigning world champion and Olympic silver medalist in the 100m hurdles. She also won world indoor titles in 2014 and 2016.

Two Ethiopian runners set the fastest times of the season Samuel Tefera in the 1,500m (3:35.54) and Getnet Wale in the 3,000m (7:32.80). Wale was fourth in the 3,000m steeplechase in the 2019 world championships.

Pascal Martinot-Lagarde, racing in his home country of France, won the 60m hurdles in 7.47, second this season to Grant Holloway‘s 7.38 last week.

The World Athletics Indoor Tour ends Friday in Madrid. The world indoor championships originally scheduled for March in Nanjing, China, have been postponed a year due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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Susan Dunklee extends decade of surprises for U.S. biathletes

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When Susan Dunklee‘s time held up for second place in Friday’s 7.5km sprint, she became the first U.S. biathlete to win two world championship medals in her career and earned the sixth medal for the U.S. in world biathlon championship history.

Four of those medals have come in the past eight years.

First was Tim Burke, who had gained some fame among biathlon fans with his three World Cup podiums in the 2009-10 season and his relationship with German biathlete Andrea Henkel, who would win two Olympic gold medals and eight world championships before retiring and marrying Burke.

In that season, Burke led the World Cup briefly but faded and didn’t do well in the Olympics. But in 2012-13, he finished 10th in the World Cup overall and ended the American drought in the world championships, finishing second in the individual behind dominant French biathlete Martin Fourcade, who won his 11th non-relay world title Wednesday in the individual.

In 2017, Dunklee became the first U.S. woman to win a non-relay medal, taking the lead in the mass start after quickly knocking down all five targets in the last shooting and holding on for second. She didn’t come out of nowhere, having taken a few World Cup medals. That season, she ranked 10th overall in the World Cup.

Then came the stunner. Lowell Bailey, who had just one World Cup podium in a long career coming into the 2016-17 season, had bib 100 in the individual, a spot usually reserved for non-contenders. But he hit all 20 targets, always important in a race that penalizes athletes one minute per miss, and gutted it out through the last lap to keep a 3.3-second advantage and win the first world championship for a U.S. biathlete.

Like Dunklee, Bailey earned his medal in the midst of a strong season. The individual was won of his four top-10 finishes in the world championships, including a fourth-place finish in the sprint. He wound up eighth overall in the World Cup.

Bailey and Burke each stuck it out to compete in their fourth Olympics in 2018, then crossed the finish line together in their final race at the U.S. championships.

This season is their first in management. Bailey, also a bluegrass musician, is now U.S. Biathlon’s director of high performance. Burke is director of athlete development.

Dunklee, on the other hand, isn’t done. Her results slipped a bit after her 2017 breakthrough, but she has had some top 10s. When she shoots clean, as she did Friday, she’s a contender.

The first U.S. medal was in the first women’s world championship in 1984, when Holly Beatie, Julie Newman and Kari Swenson bronze in 3x5km relay. Swenson also finished fifth in the individual that year and returned to compete in the next two world championships after a harrowing experience in which she was abducted and shot, a story that inspired a film starring Tracy Pollan.

The only other U.S. medal in the world championships before Burke, Bailey and Dunklee was Josh Thompson‘s individual silver in 1987. The only athletes other than Burke, Bailey, Dunklee and Thompson to have World Cup podiums (excluding relays) are Jeremy Teela in 2009 and Clare Egan, who was third in a mass start last spring and is competing in the world championships this year.

U.S. Paralympians broke through with two gold medals on the first day of competition in the 2018 Paralympics.

READ: Kendall Gretsch, Dan Cnossen take gold

Wednesday saw another surprise finish for a U.S. biathlete. Leif Nordgren, whose career-best finish outside the relays is 16th, was the only athlete to go 20-for-20 on the shooting range and placed eighth in the individual.

The championships continue through through Sunday with the single mixed relay on Thursday, the men’s and women’s relays on Saturday, and the men’s and women’s mass starts on Sunday.

WATCH: World biathlon championships TV schedule

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