While most Olympic swimmers were training hard in the pools of their home cities last year for the Rio Olympics, Syrian swimmer Rami Anis was braving the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean Sea to escape the bloodshed and barrel bombs of his home country of Syria.
For years, Anis had been training to make the national team but the Syrian civil war disrupted his dream of representing his country at the Rio games. But he made it there as part of Team Refugees.
Anis says it was strange not to hold the Syrian flag but being at the Olympics was a dream come true.
“I will not forget this for the rest of my life. It was an honor to represent the more than 60 million refugees in the world. Maybe it will inspire athlete refugees to continue.”
Anis competed in the 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly races in Rio. He recorded the 100-meter freestyle in 54.25 which his personal best time so far and finished at 56 out of 59 places.
The 25-year old Syrian swimmer comes from Aleppo, one of the main battlegrounds in the country’s civil war since its start in early 2011. Without citizenship in Turkey – to where he originally fled escaping the war at home - there was no chance for Anis to swim competitively. So he decided to make his way to Greece by boat in hopes of making it to Belgium where his father had sought refuge.
Rami Anis, swimming for the Refugee Olympic Team, is seen after a men's 100-meter freestyle heat during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Aug. 9, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Once there, Anis met former Belgian swimming champion Carine Verbauwen at a local swimming club. She agreed to train him, even though they didn’t speak the same language and he was no longer in top physical shape.
Verbauwen says they worked non-stop.
“He didn’t swim for a while because of his situation so we had to start from the beginning,” she said. “If you think of what he went through and that we only had five months to train, he did really good,” Verbauwen said.
First-ever refugee team
Never before has there been a refugee team at the Olympics. The team was made up of ten athletes from Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and South Sudan.
Refugee athletes will continue to face challenges trying to pursue a professional career. Competing in world championships will be impossible for Anis as long as FINA, the international governing body of swimming, only allows athletes to register by country.
Anis says that those issues will not stop him from pursuing his dream and that he will continue to train.
"It was an honor to hold the Olympic flag, but my hope is that next time I can participate on behalf of my country."
See you in Tokyo?
The next Olympics will be held in Tokyo, Japan, in 2020.
Today there are 65.3 million displaced people, 21.3 million refugees and 10 million stateless people in the world, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. More than half of the refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.