This week marks the beginning of the Rio Olympics, and these eight women will be going for gold. When you learn what they had to overcome to stay at the top of their game, it’s impossible not to root for them.
Yusra Mardini — Swimmer
For most swimmers in Rio this week, the single most important laps of their lives will take place when they dive in to that Olympic pool. After all, they’ve spent their whole lives preparing for this moment. For Yusra Mardini however, the most important laps of her life took place a year ago, off the coast of Greece. Yusra and her sister Sarah had just fled Syria in hopes of seeking asylum elsewhere. They were aboard a small boat, overcrowded with refugees, when the engine failed and it started to sink. Sixteen of the twenty people aboard didn’t know how to swim so Yusra, Sarah and two others dove into the freezing water. Together, they towed the boat for three and half hours until they reached land, saving the lives of everyone on board. Yusra will be competing in the 100m butterfly and the 100m freestyle in Rio, and she hopes watching her swim will “show the world refugee isn’t a bad word.”
Kayla Harrison – Judoist
By the time Kayla turned eighteen, she had already won five national championship. But behind the smiles and gold medals, Kayla was experiencing darker times. Starting at the age of thirteen, she endured years of sexual abuse from her coach; she was struggling with severe depression and suicidal ideation. But she spoke out against her attacker, he was convicted, and she started an advocacy group devoted to helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse. She also continued her judo training and in 2012, she became the first person from the US to win a gold medal in judo. She’s returning to the Rio Olympics this week in hopes of defending her title.
Chelsea Jaensch – Long Jump
Chelsea was seven years old when she first dreamed of becoming an Olympian and ten years old when she first fell in love with track and field. By the time she was twelve, she’d already won a state title and set a record in long jump that stands to this day, but despite her athletic promise, Chelsea walked away from the sport when she was nineteen. Years of injuries, combined with the struggle of juggling sports, school and a social life made continuing on untenable. However, seven years later when her anxiety became so severe that she began to find even the most commonplace social interactions challenging, Chelsea returned to the field. She soon found that returning to the sport helped her manage her psychological health, and she began spending more and more time working on her long jump. She surprised everyone by competing in the national championships that same year, and now, five years later, she’s realising her childhood dream. At the age of thirty-one, Chelsea can call herself an Olympian.
Ibithaj Muhammad — Fencer
Ibithaj initially picked up fencing simply because the uniform allowed her to play sport and stay covered up in accordance with her faith. She quickly fell in love with it though, and her extraordinary skill led to her becoming a three-time All American. She is actually about to make history as the first Muslim American woman to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab. She also holds a dual-degree from Duke University, is the founder of her own clothing line, and volunteers her time as an ambassador with the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sports Initiative. This week, she’ll also be able to add Olympian to that long list of accomplishments.
Jillion Potter – Rugby Player
In 2010, Jillion broke her neck during a rugby match. That would have been enough to end most athlete’s careers but Jillion was back on the field, neck brace and all, before the results from the MRI were even in. Then in August 2014, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer, but just a few weeks after she finished her sixth cycle of chemotherapy, she was back in the game. Now, just over a year later, she’s set to make her Olympic debut as a member of the United States Rugby Team.
Kristina Vogel — Cyclist
In May of 2009, Kristina Vogel, a promising cyclist and part-time police officer, found her career suddenly put on hold when she was hit by a bus. She broke her arm, her hand, her vertebrae, and her jaw. She lost all but six of her bottom teeth and she was put in a medically induced coma for two days. It was four full weeks before she got out of the hospital and three months before she was out of rehab. A comeback seemed highly unlikely, if not impossible, but Kristina returned to racing ten months later, and two years after that, she stood on the podium in London as they draped a gold medal around her neck. Now, she’s returning to the Olympics, where she’ll compete as part of the German cycling team and have a chance to defend her Olympic title.
Yolande Marika — Judoist
When Yolanda was a child, the fighting in her home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, caused her to become separated from her family. She fled on foot, running alone, until she was rescued and taken to a home for displaced children. There, in the refugee camp, she fell in love with judo. She was gifted at the sport, and she hoped that her talent would allow her to use judo to build a better life. Unfortunately however, she suffered at the hands of a psychologically disturbed coach who would lock her in a cage when she lost a match, who withheld food for days and took her passport during international competitions. In 2013, she decided she’d had enough. She escaped during the World Championship competition and sought asylum in Brazil, where she has lived and trained ever since. Now, three years later, she will be competing in her adopted city as a member of team refugee. It is her hope that her family will see her on television, and they will eventually be reunited as a result.
Duetee Chand — Runner
Duetee is a natural-born runner. An Indian National Champion in the 18 and Under category, by 2014 she had the Olympics firmly in her sights. But then something unexpected happened that threatened to deprive her of her Olympic dream: a blood test revealed that her body naturally produced more testosterone than the maximum threshold set for women by the sport’s governing body. She was told that she had to undergo surgery and/or agree to take drugs to suppress her hormones. If she didn’t, she would be banned from the sport. Other athletes in her position complied with the regulations, but Dutee did not. She refused to undergo an invasive medical procedure or be put on medication simply because her body naturally produced higher levels of testosterone – particularly because there was no proof that it gave her an unfair advantage in competition. She appealed the ruling all the way to The Court of Arbitration for Sport. Dutee ultimately won. The ruling was overturned and her bravery means that other athletes with naturally high testosterone levels will not have to face similar discrimination. It also means that this week she’ll fulfill her life-long dream of becoming an Olympian.