RIO DE JANEIRO: If bravery was an Olympic sport, the 10 athletes who make up the first-ever refugee team in Rio would be odds-on for a clean sweep of the gold medals.
From Yusra Mardini, a teenage swimmer from Syria who braved a Mediterranean crossing in a leaky dinghy, to Popole Misenga, who spent eight days hiding in a forest as a terrified child to flee bloody fighting, each of the refugee athletes have overcome daunting odds to maintain their Olympic dreams.
Mardini, 18, spoke of her delight on Saturday at the prospect of participating in Rio, where she will compete in the 100 meters butterfly and 100m freestyle. "It's absolutely an honor for me to be here," Mardini told a press conference Saturday.
Less than a year ago, Mardini was swimming for her life. During a perilous journey to Lesbos, the engine of their packed dinghy failed and the craft began taking on water.
Mardini and her sister jumped into the water, grabbed a rope and and spent the next three-and-a half-hours in the choppy water towing the boat to safety.
Mardini, who has now settled in Germany with her family as a refugee, says she will proudly represent Syria, the Olympic movement and her recently adopted homeland when she competes in Brazil. "It's for my country, for Germany and the Olympic Committee, because they gave me all the support to make it possible," Mardini said.
Mardini is joined in the refugee ranks by another Syrian swimmer, Rami Anis. Anis fled Syria in 2011 to avoid being enlisted into the army, relocating to Belgium from Istanbul in October last year."I'm very proud to be here," Rami said. "But I feel a bit of sadness that I'm not participating as a Syrian. We are representing people who have lost their human rights and are facing injustices."
The 25-year-old butterfly and freestyle swimmer described the refugee team as a group that "does not despair." "We have iron wills. We feel sad of course because of the wars in our countries," Anis said.
For Congelese judoka Misenga, recalling the devastating toll that conflict has had on his family was too much.
The 24-year-old broke down in tears when he was asked to comment on what message he hoped to send through his Olympic participation.
Misenga was just nine years old when he fled fighting in Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Separated from his family, he hid in the jungle for eight days before being rescued and taken to a centre for displaced children in Kinshasa.
He later settled in Brazil, staying in the country after the 2013 World Championships. "I have two brothers that I haven't seen for years. I don't remember their faces," Misenga said tearfully on Saturday. "I want to send them hugs and kisses. I'm here in Brazil participating so that one day I can bring them to live with me here in Brazil."
Another refugee from war in the Congo, Yolande Mabika, followed Misenga's journey by settling in Brazil. "This is not just a struggle for sport, it's a struggle for life. Each one of us had our own personal stories to tell," she says.
Coach Geraldo Bernardes said the question of whether any of the refugee team can win a medal is immaterial. "People ask if they can win a medal. I say they have already won their medals just by getting to Rio," he said.
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