Yusra Mardini
Getty Images

Syria swimmer races at worlds after competing for Olympic refugee team

Leave a comment

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.”

WORLDS: TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | Schedule/Results

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

VIDEO: Phelps races Great White on Shark Week

Geraint Thomas attacks, takes Tour de France lead ahead of Chris Froome

AP
Leave a comment

British Olympic track cycling champion Geraint Thomas grabbed the Tour de France lead, attacking with three and a half miles to win a summit finish on Stage 11 on Wednesday.

Thomas now leads a Team Sky one-two in the overall standings, 85 seconds ahead of four-time Tour winner Chris Froome, as the three-week Grand Tour passed the halfway mark.

“Froome is the [Team Sky] leader here, so there’s no pressure on me,” Thomas said Tuesday, according to Cyclingnews.com. “It’s a bonus for me to be up there, and hopefully I can be there for as long as possible.”

The Tour continues Thursday with stage 12 to Alpe d’Huez, live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold (full broadcast schedule here).

The 109-mile stage features three beyond-category climbs — Col de la Madeleine, Croix-de-Fer and the iconic Alpe d’Huez finish after 21 switchbacks to close out the Tour’s three days in the Alps. The overall standings are sure to change.

Greg Van Avermaet, the Rio Olympic road race champion, went into stage 11 with a 2:22 lead, which he had tripled on the first mountain day Tuesday.

But Van Avermaet, who predicted he would lose the yellow jersey before stages Tuesday and Wednesday, cracked on the second of three major climbs Wednesday. He finished in a group 22 minutes after Thomas.

Van Avermaet is a super one-day racer but not a strong climber.

Thomas showed his climbing prowess, finishing 20 seconds ahead of 2017 Giro d’Italia champion Tom Dumoulin and Froome.

Thomas dons the yellow jersey for a second straight Tour. The 2008 and 2012 Olympic track cycling gold medalist won the opening stage in 2017 and wore the maillot jaune four days before Froome took over en route to his fourth title in Paris.

There was talk before and during this year’s Tour that Thomas could challenge Froome as Sky’s team leader, even though Froome has won the last three Grand Tours and is going for record-tying fifth Tour de France crown.

But Thomas and Sky have played that down.

Dumoulin moved into third overall, 1:44 behind Thomas and 19 seconds back of Froome.

The other top contenders — 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet — finished 59 seconds behind Thomas on Wednesday.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

TOUR DE FRANCE: StandingsTV Schedule | Riders to Watch

U.S. Olympic, USA Gymnastics leaders set for another Senate hearing

AP
Leave a comment

Recently replaced U.S. Olympic Committee acting CEO Susanne Lyons, USA Gymnastics President and CEO Kerry Perry and Michigan State interim president John Engler are scheduled witnesses for a Senate subcommittee hearing next Tuesday on reforms following the Larry Nassar sexual-abuse crimes.

The hearing is titled, “Strengthening and Empowering U.S. Amateur Athletes: Moving Forward with Solutions” and will stream live at https://www.commerce.senate.gov/ on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. ET.

“The hearing will focus on changes made by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), USA Gymnastics (USAG), and Michigan State University (MSU) to protect Olympic and amateur athletes from abuse,” according to the subcommittee’s website. “It will examine recent reforms to provide safe environments for athletes and how these reforms are being implemented.”

The subcommittee held hearings April 18 and June 5 with testimonies from gymnasts and other athletes who were abused, former Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon and former senior vice president of USA Gymnastics Rhonda Faehn. Former USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny also attended the June 5 hearing but refused to answer questions.

Lyons and Perry were questioned at a House subcommittee hearing May 23.

The USOC last Thursday named Sarah Hirshland its new CEO, replacing Lyons, who had been in the role on an interim basis since Scott Blackmun resigned in February. Blackmun, who had been CEO since January 2010, left citing prostate cancer and the USOC’s need to immediately address the USA Gymnastics sexual-abuse scandal.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: USOC names first permanent female CEO