Syrian hero Yusra Mardini focused on more than just Olympic medals

Yusra Mardini is the youngest UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, such has been her impact since the Rio Olympics. (AFP)
Updated 25 October 2018

Syrian hero Yusra Mardini focused on more than just Olympic medals

  • Syrian refugee proud to be flag bearer for displaced people.
  • But is still focused on success at Tokyo Olympics.

BUENOS AIRES: Refugees typically do not swim in the Olympic Games. Nor do they write autobiographies or pass time with prominent personalities, ranging from sheikhs, emirs and presidents to the Pope and Emma Watson. Yet while Yusra Mardini is not your typical refugee, she is also definitively your typical refugee.
In August 2015 and having witnessed far more atrocities than any 17 year-old ever should, Yusra and her sister Sara fled Syria with the objective of reaching Germany. In Turkey, they boarded a dinghy bound for Greece. It was designed for eight people, but the sisters were joined by 18 others hoping to start afresh. Within 20 minutes, the raft’s engine failed under the heavy human cargo and started to take on water. Yusra, Sara and two men lessened the load by entering the choppy sea, swimming and guiding the boat and ultimately saving all those onboard. 
Within a year, Yusra was in Brazil competing at the Rio 2016 Games as part of the first Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), coming first in her heat to finish 41st overall. Her story captured the world’s imagination, prompting her to be named one of Time magazine’s 30 most influential teens of 2016, a sponsorship deal with Under Armour, a ghostwritten memoir called Butterfly, and — soon — a film by Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daltry. 
While she has yet to finish reading the book — “I was like ‘this is my story, I don't want to read it again’” — she is excited about the movie, which could be released as early as next year.
“I think it's really important to share our stories with the world,” says Yusra, now 20. “For people to better understand what is happening. I'll be in the front row crying with the napkin drying my eyes.” 
This juxtaposition of celebrity and refugee has at times made Yusra feel discomfort. Initially, she felt hurt at being “reduced to a single word,” but she has since reclaimed the label, announcing herself proud to represent the 68.5 million other refugees who are regular people with dreams and ambitions. She travels constantly — we meet in Argentina, but she arrived from New York, returned to Berlin, and is currently in California — spreading the message of sport for good and raising awareness of refugees.
“Wherever you go, there are people who are having chances in their lives and there are people who are not,” she says.
“When I am representing the Refugee Olympic Team and the athlete that I now am, I am remembering my home and all the people who are still there, have dreams but cannot achieve them. The people still in camps with no shelter; a tent full of snow. What if I was still there? What if I didn’t make it?”
Instead she was in Buenos Aires, appearing on stage alongside Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, and negotiating her way through a busy room in which she was approached by Prince Faisal of Jordan, keen to praise her fine work as the youngest Goodwill Ambassador at UNHCR — The Refugee Agency. 
She appeared perfectly at ease moving in such circles. She has addressed the UN General Assembly, met Pope Francis, President Obama, Angelina Jolie and many more. She was quick, however, to dismiss the calm exterior.
“You know, to be honest, when I meet them it's super unreal,” she says brightly. “The next day, when I'm back to my normal life, I'm like ‘Did this stuff really happen or did I imagine it?’ But it's great meeting inspiring people and personalities. They all give you advice and also, for example, Emma (Watson) or President Obama, they ask about really normal stuff. It's great that you can see all that happening and be involved. It's special… but completely unreal.”
With such a chaotic, cross-continental schedule, it would be understandable if her swimming career had been cast aside. Yet swimming has been her life since infancy: Her father Ezzat was a swimming coach, she represented Syria at the short-course World Championships in 2012, and the sport literally saved her life. So, instead, she rises earlier, reschedules training when necessary, and continues to dream of Tokyo 2020. 
“I am lucky that my coaches understand it,” she said, adding that she does not yet know under whose flag she would compete: Syria, Germany or ROT. “When I miss training they put it in different weeks, so we make it work, but it is very difficult to balance. If I take my current level, I can’t say I could win a medal in Tokyo, but I want to be there. I work as hard as I can to improve and get good results, so we’ll see how far I can go.”
Meanwhile, Yusra — who has said previously she cannot discuss the case in order not to jeopardise future proceedings — is focusing her own energies on positivity.
“Refugees are human beings who can change their lives through sport,” she says. “These people can do something, they just need a chance. We fled violence seeking another chance in life, so I am happy to see there are good and positive people in this world. A lot of people are volunteering and they are helping us. Together we want to change something in this world.”


Saudi-born tennis players to battle it out as part of Diriyah Tennis Cup

Updated 10 December 2019

Saudi-born tennis players to battle it out as part of Diriyah Tennis Cup

  • Michael Mmoh of USA and Ammar Al-Haqbani of Saudi Arabia to play
  • Both Saudi-born players will feature on the same court that will host big name global superstars

RIYADH: Two of the most exciting Saudi-born tennis stars will go head-to-head when in a showpiece exhibition match as part of Diriyah Tennis Cup presented by Saudi Aramco.

Michael Mmoh (USA) and Ammar Al-Haqbani (KSA) – both 21 – will compete in front of an eager home crowd ahead of the final match of the $3 million tournament that has attracted eight of the world’s best players and the eyes of world tennis.

The special exhibition match will take place at 2pm Saturday, December 14th at the Diriyah Arena ahead of the final’s day of the Kingdom’s inaugural international tennis event.  

Both Saudi-born players will feature on the same court that will host big name global superstars, including three-time Grand Slam winner Stan Wawrinka, big-hitting US champion John Isner, and 2019’s most exciting breakthrough player, Daniil Medvedev of Russia.

American Michael Mmoh said: “I can’t wait to be coming back to Saudi Arabia and play in front of the local fans. It’s going to be a very special experience for me. 

“Having some of the best players in the world coming to the Kingdom can really inspire new fans to pick up a racquet and get on a court for the first time and play this great game.”

Ammar echoed that view, saying: “The Diriyah Tennis Cup presented by Saudi Aramco will have a significant impact on tennis in Saudi, especially for local tennis lovers and young talents who want to be professionals.

“Watching closely as these big names compete at the Diriyah Arena will be a huge inspiration for them to work more and build their professional path  in order to compete on the global stage in the future.”

Named after basketball icon Michael Jordan, Michael Mmoh was born in Riyadh; his father Tony – who peaked at world number 105 – Nigerian, who was a former Saudi-Arabian Davis Cup captain, and his mother from Ireland but an Australian citizen. When leaving the Kingdom aged 13, Michael’s first big move within the tennis world was, when he enrolled in the prestigious IMG Academy student-athlete school in Bradenton (Florida).

That decision and the hard work that followed paid off, with Michael climbing his way to world number two in the junior rankings. By 2018, he had broken into the Top 100 men’s players worldwide. Injury hampered his 2019, but it’s a year he hopes to end with a bang at Ad Diriyah as he closes back in on the Top 100 and seeks to add to his sixth ATP Challenger Tour titles in 2020.

His opponent Ammar Haqbani has followed just as interesting a path. One of three tennis-playing children of US-based Saudi diplomat Faleh Haqbani, Ammar started his tennis career aged five years old. He participated in his first United States Tennis Association (USTA) competition three years later, later scaling the heights to become the seventh best player on the USTA’s Mid-Atlantic section standings, and 135th globally in the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) ranking.

Ammar is a leader in the Saudi national team in the Davis Cup since 2015 and has been a dominant figure in GCC regional tournaments for seven years. He was also the first Saudi Arabian player to win a gold medal in an international tennis competition.

Held on the outskirts of Riyadh, the three-day Diriyah Cup tournament will welcome eight leading ATP players: Stan Wawrinka (Switzerland), John Isner (USA), Daniil Medvedev (Russia), David Goffin (Belgium), the Frenchmen Gaël Monfils and Lucas Pouille (France), Fabio Fognini (Italy), and Jan-Lennard Struff from Germany.

The Cup is one of several sporting spectacles taking place as part of the Kingdom’s 2019 Diriyah Season festival, which has already featured the Clash of the Dunes heavyweight boxing bout between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz.

Its 15,000-seater venue is set upon the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ad Diriyah, where the ancient mud-wall city will offer a breath-taking backdrop for three-days of hard-court tennis.