Fact Check

Did Olympic Swimmer Yusra Mardini Flee Syria by Swimming?

"I hated the sea after that," Yusra Mardini said of the hazardous trip.

Published July 26, 2021

24 July 2021, Japan, Tokio: Swimming: Olympics, heats: 100m butterfly, women at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Yusra Mardini of IOC Refugee Olympic Team in action. Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa (Photo by Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images) (Getty Images)
Image courtesy of Getty Images
As a teenager in 2015, Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini fled the Syrian civil war, a trip that required her to swim three hours through the Aegean Sea.

In the days before the opening ceremony for the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics in summer 2021, a meme emerged online, claiming one Olympian was competing in the sport that literally saved her life while she was fleeing the Syrian civil war: swimming.

According to the meme, Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini fled violence in her home country as a teenager. And at one point during that trip, she supposedly swam for three hours, somehow steering a boat carrying an unidentified number of passengers while kicking in the water.

The underlying assertion was true. At age 17, Yusra and her sister fled Damascus for Europe in August 2015, reaching Berlin the following month, according to her biographical page on the official website for the Olympics. The page stated:

Their journey took them through Lebanon to Izmir, Turkey, and they travelled on a dinghy with about 30 other people to the island of Lesbos, Greece. During the journey the boat's motor broke, leaving them stranded. The sisters and three others people jumped into the water and took turns kicking and dragging the boat for three-and-a-half hours before eventually reaching safety. [...[

'The boats are those boats you go on vacation with for five people, 10 people. There were 20 on it. Most of them didn't know how to swim. When we were on the boat the motor stopped and the water was coming in.

In other words, the viral claim was basically true, though it omitted key details about Yusra's trip on the Aegean Sea going from Turkey to Greece -- namely, she was not the only passenger aboard who decided to jump in after the boat started taking on water; her sister and two unidentified men did as well.

Yusra has recalled the treacherous trip in many interviews since entering the international swimming circuit. For example, while speaking to The Associated Press in 2017 (after she made her Olympic debut at the Rio de Janeiro games as member of the first-ever refugee team), she 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.”

As far as the Tokyo games, Yusra was among 29 Olympians who had previously fled their home countries, received scholarships to train in a new home country (Germany for Yusra), and were selected by the International Olympic Committee to compete on the Refugee Olympic Team.

On July 24, the 23-year-old finished the women's 100-meter butterfly third in her heat, behind Azerbaijan athlete Sheikhalizadehkhanghah Mariam, 17, and Sri Lanka swimmer Gaffoor Aniqah, 17. The next day, Margaret MacNeil of Canada won the entire event with a time of 55.59 seconds.

Jessica Lee is Snopes' Senior Assignments Editor with expertise in investigative storytelling, media literacy advocacy and digital audience engagement.