Since the dawning of the new age of Olympians in 1896, there are have been key moments that have stunned and inspired millions to believe that the Olympics is more than just about the medal. Jesse Owen’s famous gold-medal lap in the face of a chagrined Hitler changed the world’s belief that skin color equaled racial dominance. Greg Louganis’s epic diving fail and winning comeback in 1998 inspired millions with his determination and grace under expected defeat.

Yusra Mardini, who will compete on the refugee team at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero, trains at the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 swimming club's training center in Berlin, July 19, 2106. Last August, Mardini and her sister Sarah fled war-torn Syria and embarked on a harrowing, monthlong journey through Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and up through the Balkans and Central Europe to Germany, narrowly dodging capture and death. (Gordon Welters /The New York Times)

Yet, there are many incredible moments of Olympic heroism have gone unsung over the years. From the backwoods of Tennessee to the waters of South Korea, these three competitors have transcended the games to give us a glimpse into the depths of the human soul, and redefined what it means to be an Olympic hero.

1. Yusra Mardini, Rio De Janeiro 2016

As the 2015 conflict in Syria came to a violent head, many natives realized that the safest course of action was to flee the country. After the dangerous journey through Lebanon and Turkey, the final ordeal was navigating the treacherous waters of the Greek Isle of Lesbos. For Olympic gold winner Yusra Mardini, it would be the defining moment of her life.


A Defining Journey

Seventeen-year-old Yusra Mardini, along with her sister Sarah and several other family members, navigated the high waters of the Aegean Sea during the summer of 2015. Partway through their voyage, the small watercraft sprung a leak, and the ship began taking in dangerous amounts of water. Although sheer panic ripped through the Syrian refugees aboard the craft, Mardini and her sister stepped up going overboard, using their powerful swim training to the advantage of all on aboard. Their strong legs propelled the boat towards Greece, where eventually, all 20 people safely arrived.

Olympic Failure, Personal Hero

Mardini’s heroism and athletic prowess earned her a top place on the 2016 Olympic Refugee Team, a multinational team representing refugees from violent areas across the globe. As a part of the team, she came in 41st in the qualifying round for the 100-meter butterfly race, 16 places away from the semi-finals. Still, her heroism and athletic prowess before the games undoubtedly makes her one of the most inspiring competitors in the Olympics to date.

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