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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Cyclist in induced coma after Tour of Poland crash

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Dutch cyclist Fabio Jakobsen was put into an induced coma Wednesday after suffering injuries in a crash on the final stretch of the Tour of Poland, organizers said.

A massive crash at the finish of the first stage resulted in Dylan Groenewegen‘s disqualification from the race.

Leading a bunch sprint, Groenewegen veered toward the right barrier, pinching countryman Jakobsen, who barreled into the barrier meters from the finish line.

Jakobsen went head over heels, his bike went airborne and the barriers exploded onto the road, causing more cyclists to crash.

Jakobsen was airlifted to a hospital in serious condition and was put into an induced coma, the Tour de Pologne press office said.

Doctor Pawel Gruenpeter of the hospital in Sosnowiec said Jakobsen suffered injuries to the head and chest but that his condition was stable at the intensive care unit. Jakobsen will need surgery to his face and skull, Gruenpeter told state broadcaster TVP Sport.

Groenewegen crossed the finish line first but was disqualified, giving Jakobsen the stage win, according to the stage race website.

Groenewegen, a 27-year-old Jumbo-Visma rider, owns four Tour de France stage wins among the last three years.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) “strongly condemned” Groenewegen’s “dangerous” and “unacceptable” behavior. It referred Groenewegen’s actions to a disciplinary commission for possible sanctions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Figure skating Grand Prix Series will be held as ‘domestic’ competitions

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix Series will go ahead as scheduled this fall, with modifications due to the coronavirus pandemic, the International Skating Union decided Monday.

Each of the series’ six tops around the globe will be “a domestic run event,” limited to skaters of the event’s host country, who regularly train in the host country and from a respective geographical area. The number of disciplines and skaters at each event are to be worked out.

The Grand Prix Series, held annually since 1995, is a six-event fall season, qualifying the top six skaters and teams per discipline to December’s Grand Prix Final. The annual stops are in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan, leading up to the Final, which is held at a different site each year.

The Final is the second-biggest annual competition after the world championships, which are typically in late March. The Final is still scheduled for Beijing, though whether or when it can be held will be discussed.

The series begins in late October with Skate America, which debuted in 1979 and has been held every year since 1988 as the biggest annual international competition in the U.S. Skate America’s site is Las Vegas, just as it was in 2019.

Skaters typically compete twice on the Grand Prix Series (three times if they qualify for the Final). ISU vice president Alexander Lakernik said skaters will be limited to one start in the six-event series before the Final, according to a Russian media quote confirmed by Phil Hersh.

The ISU has not confirmed or denied Lakernik’s assertion.

Most, if not all, top-level U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada. That makes the first two Grand Prix stops — Skate America and Skate Canada — likely destinations. Grand Prix assignments have not been published.

“I appreciate the ISU is open to adapting competitive formats and is working to give athletes opportunities to compete,” Evan Bates, a U.S. ice dance champion with Madison Chock who trains in Montreal, wrote in a text message to Hersh. “This announcement gives reassurance that the ISU is doing their best to ensure a season will still take place. Of course, it’s hard to predict what will happen, and we’re not sure about what country we would compete in. It would probably depend on what the quarantine rules are at that time.”

The January 2021 U.S. Championships are scheduled for San Jose, Calif. The March 2021 World Championships are set for Stockholm.

In July, the ISU canceled the Junior Grand Prix Series for skaters mostly ages 13 to 18, including two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu, who cannot enter the senior Grand Prix until 2021.

Other early season senior international competitions scheduled for September were also canceled or postponed.

U.S. Figure Skating said in a statement that it will have more details on the Grand Prix Series in the coming weeks after collaborating with an ISU-appointed group.

“This is a great example of the figure skating community coming together to ensure that the world’s premier figure skating series will continue during these challenging times,” the statement read. “Figure skaters want to compete and figure skating fans from all around the world want to see their favorite athletes skate, and this format will ensure just that.”

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