Olympic refugee team swimmer Yusra Mardini signed with Under Armour and starred in a video published by the apparel company Thursday, telling her story of fleeing Syria in August 2015.
“I shouldn’t be alive today,” Mardini said in the video. “I should have been killed by the bomb that hit the pool in Damascus. I should have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. I should have been one of the many refugees who died along the way, but I am here, alive, because I kept moving. So many things tried to stop me, to break me. So many times something whispered, ‘This, now this, will defeat you.’ But I kept moving. Moving as I left my family behind. Moving through the fear when I was hiding in the forest. Moving through the sea, pulling a boat through the waves. Now, when my exhaustion rises, I remember. And my strength just rises higher. It says greater things than this have tried to stop me, and I keep moving.”
Mardini, 19, swam in Rio about one year after swimming for her life for three hours in the Aegean Sea while fleeing Damascus for Europe. She was one of 10 athletes on the Olympic refugee team.
In fleeing, Mardini, her sister and others 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 three-plus 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. A coach quickly realized Mardini’s potential and helped her make the International Olympic Committee’s refugee team for Rio.
Jessica Pegula, the highest-ranked American man or woman, was upset in the third round of the French Open.
Elise Mertens, the 28th seed from Belgium, bounced the third seed Pegula 6-1, 6-3 to reach the round of 16. Pegula, a 29-year-old at a career-high ranking, had lost in the quarterfinals of four of the previous five majors.
Down 4-3 in the second set, Pegula squandered three break points in a 14-minute game. Mertens then broke Pegula to close it out.
Pegula’s exit leaves No. 6 seed Coco Gauff, last year’s runner-up, as the last seeded hope to become the first U.S. woman to win a major title since Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major span without an American champ is the longest for U.S. women since Monica Seles won the 1996 Australian Open.
Mertens, who lost in the third or fourth round of the last six French Opens, plays a Russian Anastasia in the fourth round: Pavlyuchenkova or Potapova.
Earlier, ninth-seeded Russian Daria Kasatkina became the first player to reach the fourth round. She won 6-0, 6-1 over 69th-ranked American Peyton Stearns, the 2022 NCAA champion from Texas.
Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, is the lone American woman left in the bottom half of the draw. She plays Kazakh Yulia Putintseva later Friday. Gauff, Bernarda Pera and Kayla Day remain in the top half.
Friday’s featured men’s matches: Top seed Carlos Alcaraz versus 26th seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada, and No. 3 Novak Djokovic against No. 29 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain.
A year from now, they hope to vie for medals in the City of Light. But on this day, four U.S. hopefuls for the 2024 Paris Olympics and Paralympics competed on “Top Chef” World All-Stars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, the first cross-promotional moment across NBC Universal’s One Platform for the Games.
As Parisians and tourists traversed the Champ de Mars, Olympic champions gymnast Suni Lee and sprinter Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Paralympic champion swimmer Mallory Weggemann and medalist sprinter Hunter Woodhall bundled and huddled and did everything possible to stay warm between rain showers.
Then came the 30-minute frenzy. Each athlete was paired with a cheftestant for what the Bravo series calls a wall challenge: the chef and the athlete each attempted to make the same dish while separated by a divider, unable to see what the other was doing. The duo whose dishes have the closest appearance and taste win.
It’s little surprise that Weggemann prevailed. At 33 on the day of filming, she’s a decade older than the rest of the athletes.
When she was 18, Weggemann lost movement from the waist down while receiving epidural injections to treat shingles. Four years later, she swam at her first Paralympics and won her first gold medal.
“I understand that when I go onto a [filming] set like today, and I’m rolling rather than stepping, that looks different,” she said. “Not everyone who’s going to watch ‘Top Chef’ is a sports fanatic, and so they maybe don’t watch the Olympics and Paralympics, but in that moment, we got to bring them into the movement in a way that we maybe otherwise wouldn’t. I’m not oblivious to the fact that as a woman with a disability in that moment, I also have the power to change perceptions because not everyone in our society has exposure to disability.”
Weggemann has already been to three Paralympics and earned five medals. She did the “Top Chef” competition while three months pregnant. Baby Charlotte arrived March 16. Her goal is to be on the podium in Paris and be able to see her husband and daughter in the stands.
Woodhall, who won three medals in Tokyo in his Paralympic debut, visited the French capital with his then-fiancée Tara Davis, who placed sixth in the Tokyo Olympic long jump. Their Texas wedding was a month after the “Top Chef” filming.
“In Tokyo, we weren’t able to be there for each other,” said Woodhall, referring to COVID-19 travel restrictions for those Games not allowing spectators. “Paris is so exciting because we’ll both be able to really be in the moment and support each other through both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”
McLaughlin-Levrone had husband Andre Levrone Jr., a former NFL practice squad wide receiver, by her side in Paris. Before “Top Chef,” she had a whirlwind spring and summer, getting married in May and then twice breaking her world record in the 400m hurdles. At the top of her sport, McLaughlin-Levrone had a decision to make in the fall and winter offseason: continue in the hurdles, where she has accomplished everything, or venture into another event, the 400m without hurdles, to test herself.
“That world record has stood for so long, and no one’s come even close to it,” she said of the flat 400m, and its 37-year-old world record, while in Paris. “So we definitely want to be able to try that and see what we can do there as well.”
Now, McLaughlin-Levrone is set to return to Paris next week for her first outdoor race since August. It will be a flat 400m. She also plans to race the 400m at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in July, and possibly at August’s world championships in lieu of the hurdles.
The gymnast Lee became one of the unexpected golden stories of the Tokyo Games. After Simone Biles withdrew from the meet, the Hmong American from Minnesota seized the all-around title, the biggest prize in her sport.
She hasn’t performed in international gymnastics since. Lee matriculated at Auburn and competed for the Tigers. But NCAA gymnastics involves different routines, competitions and scoring than Olympic gymnastics. It’s such a contrast that, traditionally, joining a college team has often meant retirement from the Olympic level.
The afternoon before the “Top Chef” filming, Lee walked inside the Accor Arena in the Bercy neighborhood, the site of the 2024 Olympic gymnastics events. A competition was taking place that included the Brazilian who took silver behind Lee in Tokyo.
“I am a little nervous to get back out on the bigger stage,” Lee said then. “Going to that meet actually was really important to me because I think I needed the help of re-motivating myself and seeing what I’m getting back into, watching the competition, just getting used to that atmosphere again.”
Two months after that experience, Lee announced she would leave Auburn after her sophomore year to return to elite training for a 2024 Paris Olympic bid.
The “Top Chef” integration helps launch summer Paris Games-related fanfare, including national and world championships in many Olympic and Paralympic sports and events to mark the one-year-out dates from the Opening Ceremonies (July 26 for the Olympics, Aug. 28 for the Paralympics).
“Top Chef,” in its 20th season, previously featured Olympians before the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games and then again before Tokyo. Host Padma Lakshmi noticed a common trait.
“Their attention to detail is extraordinary,” she said. “Having that Olympic training, and really listening to what your coaches want, and what the parameters of the contest is, is something that they’re skilled at doing day in and day out.”