Syria swimmer races at worlds after competing for Olympic refugee team

Yusra Mardini
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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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VIDEO: Phelps races Great White on Shark Week

Valencia Marathon produces historic times in men’s, women’s races

2022 Valencia Marathon
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Kenyan Kelvin Kiptum and Ethiopian Amane Beriso won the Valencia Marathon and became the third-fastest man and woman in history, respectively.

Kiptum, a 23-year-old in his marathon debut, won the men’s race in 2 hours, 1 minute, 53 seconds. The only men to ever run faster over 26.2 miles are legends: Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge (2:01:09 world record, plus a 2:01:39) and Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele (2:01:41).

Kipchoge made his marathon debut at age 28, and Bekele at 31.

Beriso, a 31-year-old whose personal best was 2:20:48 from January 2016, stunned the women’s field Sunday by running 2:14:58. The only women to have run faster: Kenyans Brigid Kosgei (2:14:04) and Ruth Chepngetich (2:14:18).

Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidey finished second in 2:16:49, the fastest-ever time for a woman in her marathon debut. Gidey is the world record holder at 5000m and 10,000m.

Valencia is arguably the top annual marathon outside of the six World Marathon Majors. The next major marathon is Tokyo on March 5.

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Aleksander Aamodt Kilde wins Beaver Creek downhill

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde won his second straight World Cup downhill race to start the season, despite feeling under the weather.

Although dealing with an illness all week in training, Kilde powered through the challenging Birds of Prey course Saturday in a time of 1 minute, 42.09 seconds. It was enough to hold off Marco Odermatt of Switzerland by 0.06 seconds. James Crawford of Canada was third to earn his second career World Cup podium finish.

Kilde also won the opening downhill last weekend in Lake Louise, Alberta.

“It’s been a tough week,” Kilde said after the race. “I caught the flu in Lake Louise after a very, very nice weekend. It really hit me hard. Then I got a couple of days to rest and take it easy. … I felt OK. Still feeling it a little bit in my system.”

The Beaver Creek crew members had the course in solid shape a day after a downhill race was canceled due to high wind and snowfall.

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Kilde reached speeds around 75 mph in picking up his eighth World Cup downhill victory. That tied him with Kjetil Jansrud for the third-most downhill wins in the World Cup discipline among Norwegian men. The total trails only Aksel Lund Svindal (14) and Lasse Kjus (10).

“I found a really, really good set-up with my equipment and also with my skiing,” Kilde explained. “I believe in myself. I trust in myself. I have a good game plan. When I stand on the start, I don’t dwell on anything. I know that this plan is what I do and when I do that it’s going to be fast.”

Odermatt has been on the podium in all four World Cup races this season as he tries to defend his overall World Cup title. The 25-year-old finished third in the opening downhill of the season last weekend. He’s also won a giant slalom race and a super-G.

Ryan Cochran-Siegle wound up in seventh place for the top American finish. He was ninth in the downhill in Lake Louise.

“It’s been solid,” Cochran-Siegle said of his strides in the discipline. “A couple of little things here and there that pushed me off that top three. You have to ski with a lot of intensity and ski without abandon, in a sense. Today was a good step.”

Switzerland’s Beat Feuz, who won the Olympic downhill gold medal at the Beijing Games last February, tied for ninth.

The Beaver Creek stop on the circuit comes to a close Sunday with a super-G race. Odermatt will be the favorite after holding off Kilde in the opening super-G last weekend.

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