A Syrian native, Mardini first competed internationally in 2012 at the World Short Course Championships, where she competed in the 200 IM along with the 200 and 400 free.
In 2015, Mardini and her sister, Sara Mardini, fled Syria after their home was destroyed in conflicts during the Syrian Civil War, and had plans to escape to Greece via boat. However, during their exodus, their boat holding the sisters and 18 other refugees – that was only meant to hold seven – began to take on water in the Aegean Sea. In an act of desperation, Yusra, her sister, and two other refugees entered the water and were able to push and pull the boat for three hours before they reached land.
Soon after the harrowing experience, Mardini and her sister were able to settle in Berlin, Germany. Their younger sister and parents fled Syria soon after, joining them in Germany.
After settling in Germany, Mardini trained under Sven Spannekrebs to try and qualify for the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, which led to her selection to the Refugee Olympic Team. She would go on to compete in both the 100 free and 100 fly at the Games. She would finish 45th and 40th respectively.
Mardini also competed in the 100 butterfly at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, where she was selected to be the flagbearer of the Refugee Olympic Team. She finished 33rd in this competition.
Mardini’s experiences represent those of perseverance and grit, as they have been depicted through multiple different media. These include Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Mardini’s own autobiography Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian – My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph, and the documentary The Swimmers, which was released on Netflix in 2022.
After the release of The Swimmers, both Yusra and her sister, Sara, were named two of the Time Magazine 100 most influential people of 2023. They were both recognized for their humanitarian efforts, as Yusra is a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, and Sara works for the Emergency Response Centre International as a volunteer lifeguard as well as a human rights activist.
Sara recently faced charges alongside 24 other ERCI workers for espionage, forgery, and human trafficking, however the charges were dropped. Sara has also retired from swimming.
Earlier this month, Yusra launched the Yusra Mardini Foundation, which is “dedicated to advancing access to sports and education for refugee communities around the world, as well as directly supporting refugee athletes by providing them with the opportunities, resources, and networks necessary to excel in sports and rebuild their lives.”