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NEWS FEATURE Syrian refugee swimmer dreams of Rio Olympics By Derek Wilson, dpa

Europe
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Going to the Olympic Games is a goal for many athletes but teenage Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini, currently a refugee in Berlin, is dreaming of an extra special participation.

Berlin (dpa) - Teenage prodigies are far from unique in sport but young Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini is a stand-out for exceptional reasons as she aims for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro later this year.

The 18-year-old Mardini, originally from Damascus, fled war-torn Syria with her family and made it to Germany through the well-publicised Balkan route.

But while she is not the only one to travel that path, few others will have plunged into the Aegean Sea to help push an inflatable boat more than three hours to shore after its motor broke.

"This was awful but after that, me and my sister thought it would be a real shame if we didn‘t help the people with us, who don‘t know how to swim," she said in fluent English in Berlin Friday.

"So we had to get into the water and help them. Of course I hated the sea after that, it was a really tough experience."

The sea may no longer appeal but being in water does. Having started swimming under the guidance of her father, a coach, when aged 3, Mardini finds being in the pool second nature.

And that was what led her to the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 club in the German capital.

"When I‘m in the water I forget about everything, all my problems," she said.

Swimming with the club has helped with her integration into Germany but a glittering path to Rio is now on offer as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) intends to support a refugee team at the coming Games.

"It‘s relatively new for us helping refugees through sport," IOC director Pere Miro said. "We have the situation now in place for Rio.

"But we believe this should continue after the Games in Rio - it should be something that is permanent in the refugee camps, in Europe.

"We have another Games in Tokyo and this should be analysed in the future."

Currently 17 National Olympic Committees receive IOC grants to help identify and develop the talents of refugees in their countries. With around 60 million refugees making their way across the world it is not surprising that some can play sport to a high level.

Mardini is one of 43 athletes considered by the IOC as potential members of a refugee team, likely 5-10 strong, to compete in Rio.

She herself is currently around eight seconds shy of the B qualifying time for the 200-metre freestyle but coach Sven Spannekrebs is quietly confident she will make it in time.

"We checked her technique (when she arrived) as her aerobic foundation was not good after two years (out of training) but we decided right away she could join our group.

"She‘s making immediate improvement and did some good personal best times."

Now enrolled at a sport school in Berlin, Mardini - in addition to harbouring ambitions to be a pilot - trains twice a day at the pool built for the 1936 Olympic Games but can list off modern days heroes such as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte as those she looks at for inspiration.

Should Mardini make it to Brazil, she would officially be competing under the Olympic flag against rather than with the Syrian team, though this is hardly a major detail for her.

"I think it‘s a different flag as you enter the stadium but the same emotions and everything as an athlete," she said. "I‘ll only be thinking about the water."

Looking at Mardini, dressed in a black hoodie, jeans and trainers when meeting the media, it is hard to escape the feeling that she‘s just an ordinary girl doing extraordinary things.

"I look awful," she giggled in stereotypically teenage fashion when a picture was projected onto the wall during the media presentation. But the picture was not the usual sort of drunken Facebook embarrassment teenagers often regret, it was taken walking the Balkan route from a destroyed house in Syria to safe haven in Europe.

She‘d described ducking through cornfields on the border between Serbia and Hungary, and explaining a misunderstood situation hours later: "The Hungarian police couldn‘t understand why we were laughing - we were going to die in the sea and now we were there, we were not afraid of them."

Mardini, confident as any teenager can expect to be after fleeing their home and suddenly facing the glare of world media, certainly does not seem afraid of much.

And reaching the Olympics in Rio is simply the next challenge in her path.

"I want them (other refugees) to be proud of me," she said. "I just want to encourage them that even not in our homeland or if we‘ve had a tough way we can still do a lot of great things."

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