Yusra Mardini
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Syria swimmer races at worlds after competing for Olympic refugee team

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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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Olympic cycling champion faces army reprimand for bare-bottom White House photo

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BERN, Switzerland (AP) — Olympic cycling champion Nino Schurter faces being reprimanded by the Swiss Army after posting a photo on social media showing his bare bottom with the White House in the background.

The army confirmed details reported in Swiss media that the 33-year-old mountain biker faces a possible warning from his senior officers over the incident this month, though any disciplinary action will not be announced.

The Rio gold medalist and record eight-time world champion is supported in his career by Switzerland’s military.

Schurter was on service duty between races in the United States two weeks ago when he posted a photo on Instagram with three team colleagues all dropping their pants while facing the White House.

The photo, since deleted but viewable here, was tagged to President Donald Trump and included the message “white (peach emoji) for the White House.”

The Swiss Army says it did not want to make a scandal of the incident, and Schurter had apologized to his commanding officer. He told Swiss media taking the photo had been spontaneous and he loved being in the U.S.

Schurter is the current Swiss sportsman of the year, beating tennis great Roger Federer into second place in December in a public vote.

MORE: World Road Cycling Championships TV Schedule

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2019 World Road Cycling Championships TV, live stream schedule

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The World Road Cycling Championships begin Sunday in Yorkshire, Great Britain. Every race streams live for NBC Sports Gold “Cycling Pass” subscribers.

Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBCSN also air TV coverage of the eight-day championships.

Look for a possibly wide-open men’s time trial on Wednesday given 2017 champion Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands is out after missing the Tour de France with a knee injury. Australian Rohan Dennis, last year’s winner, is a bit of an unknown after quitting the Tour de France in a dispute with his team.

Slovakian Peter Sagan looks to reclaim the road race on the final day on Sept. 29. Sagan won three straight titles before 39-year-old Alejandro Valverde of Spain took last year’s event on a climber’s course.

Dutch women swept the time trial and road race titles the last two years. They’re once again led by Anna van der Breggen, the reigning Olympic and world road race champion, and Annemiek van Vleuten, who recovered from her head-first Rio Olympic crash to win the last two world time trials.

But look out for another Dutch veteran, Marianne Vos, a 32-year-old having a resurgent season. The London Olympic road race champ seeks her first world medal since the tail end of her single-day road dominance in 2013.

The U.S. roster is led by Amber Neben, who won her second time trial world title in 2017 at age 42, and Chloe Dygert Owen, the 22-year-old track world champion who wants to make the Olympic team in both disciplines.

The American men feature Chad Haga, who won the final-stage time trial at the Giro d’Italia in June, and fellow Tour de France veterans Brent Bookwalter and Lawson Craddock.

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Date Event Time (ET) Network
Sept. 22 Team Time Trial Mixed Relay 8:10 a.m. Streaming
5:30 p.m.* Olympic Channel
Sept. 23 Women’s Junior Individual Time Trial 5 a.m. Olympic Channel
Men’s Junior Individual Time Trial 8:30 a.m. Olympic Channel
Sept. 24 Men’s U23 Individual Time Trial 5 a.m. Olympic Channel
Women’s Individual Time Trial 9:30 a.m. Olympic Channel
Sept. 25 Men’s Individual Time Trial 8 a.m. Olympic Channel
Sept. 26 Men’s Junior Road Race 7 a.m. Olympic Channel
Sept. 27 Women’s Junior Road Race 3:30 a.m. Olympic Channel
Men’s U23 Road Race 9 a.m. Olympic Channel
Sept. 28 Women’s Road Race 5:40 a.m. Streaming
2:30 p.m.* Olympic Channel
Sept. 29 Men’s Road Race 3:30 a.m. Olympic Channel
10 p.m.* NBCSN

*Same-day delayed broadcast.