It was what Yusra Mardini left unsaid, rather than the conventional words of excitement that made the bigger impression after the teenager’s debut in the Olympic pool on Saturday.
“I was only thinking about water and the last competitions and where I am now,” the Syrian, swimming for a refugee team, told reporters when asked what went through her mind ahead of her 100 metre butterfly heat.
Mardini, who braved a Mediterranean crossing in a leaky dinghy fleeing war-torn Syria, won her 100m butterfly heat to launch an “amazing” Olympic experience.
“Everything was amazing. It was the only thing I ever wanted was to compete in the Olympics,” said the 18-year-old, who is representing the first-ever Olympic refugee team.
“I had a good feeling in the water so I’m happy for that.”
She attended Friday’s opening ceremony, but didn’t stay for the end because she wanted to be ready for her race.
Mardini touched in 1:09.21, just off her entry time of 1:08.51.
“I’ve only been back swimming for two years so we’re only now getting back to my levels of before. But I’m pleased,” added Mardini, who has settled in Germany with her family.
Less than a year ago Mardini found herself swimming for her life when the crowded dinghy headed for the Greek island of Lesbos suffered engine failure.
She and her sister jumped into the water and used a rope to tow the boat to safety.
“When I was in the water there was fear. You don’t know whether you are going to live or die,” the 18-year-old said in a video interview published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“Before you go on the boat, people tell you that you are going to die,” Sara told IOM in an interview published on Monday.
“So the first thing you think about when you get on that boat is death. You don’t think of anything else.”
Hundreds have died crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey as they tried to reach Europe after fleeing conflicts and political turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Although she was 41st fastest in an event led by world record-holder Sarah Sjostrom’s 56.26sec, meaning she didn’t qualify for the semifinals, Mardini said it was a thrill to line up against the world’s best.
“It’s an incredible feeling and I’m happy to see all the great swimmers here,” she said. “Competing with all these great champions is exciting.”
In March, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach announced he would choose five to 10 refugee athletes to compete at the Games.
One other swimmer, Rami Anis, is also originally from Syria and will compete in the men’s 100m butterfly. Mardini is also entered in the 100m freestyle.
Each refugee athlete is being hosted by a national Olympic committee. Mardini is being hosted by Germany, while Anis is being hosted by Belgium.
Six refugee athletes are competing in athletics and two in judo.