When the Olympic Games roll around, we’re all confronted with what people can accomplish with enough dedication.
No matter which arenas these athletes step into, there is a common thread that connects each and every one of them: They make it their mission to achieve their dreams. Whether they grew up rich or poor, privileged or suffocated by oppression, they’re all emblematic of what it means to chase your dreams until you’re totally breathless.
But there are some whose stories strike a particularly profound chord. A few athletes competing in Rio this year were born into violence in Sudan. Another broke her spine and stopped at nothing to get back in the game. Their stories are important. They’re inspiring and powerful and sometimes tragic. They prove that with perseverance, no hurdle on the road to greatness is too high.
1. Kayla Harrison
In Rio, Harrison will compete for the United States in women’s judo. She has trained with the likes of Rhonda Rousey. She fields more offers from mixed martial arts groups every day. She was also sexually abused by her coach as a judo prodigy at the age of 13.
The beginning of her career was marred by betrayal and trauma, but now, she’s open with her story in the hopes that she can help other young athletes who are dealing with sexual assault believe in their talents and know that their abusers are the ones who should suffer, not them. Harrison is a hero in more ways than one.
2. Jillion Potter
Although this rugby superstar from the U.S. seems unbreakable, her entire career almost came crashing down when she shattered her C5 vertebra and tore a few ligaments. Despite her doctor’s orders to refrain from ever playing again, she went through extensive rehab to get back on the field.
When she overcame that obstacle, however, she was strapped with a devastating diagnosis. She was heartbroken to discover that she had synovial sarcoma, which is a form of cancer that affects soft tissue in the joints. Amazingly, she underwent chemotherapy and will be hitting the turf this year to play for her country.
3. Quanitta “Queen” Underwood
This American boxing star has had to fight her entire life, and like Harrison, she knows what it’s like to be betrayed. She and her sister suffered through years of sexual abuse committed by their own father. Unlike many athletes, Underwood was not a prodigy. She was always strong, but she wasn’t introduced to boxing until she was 19 after she joined the Air Force.
She medaled in London back in 2012, which was the year boxing was introduced as an Olympic sport. All signs point to her doing it again this year.
4. Guor Mading Maker
Childhood was never something Maker was able to enjoy. The Sudanese runner was born during a period of violence and turmoil as the southern region of Sudan worked to free itself from the country’s clutches. He lost eight siblings to that war, along with 28 more family members. It stole everything from him. When South Sudan became its own nation and the Olympic qualifiers rolled around, he realized that he did not have citizenship in a nation recognized by the Olympic committee.
In a moment that made Olympic history, Maker was permitted to run in London as an independent athlete. In Rio, he will compete as a member of the South Sudanese team in its inaugural year.
5. Kieran Behan
As a child, this Irish gymnast was told that he would be bound to a wheelchair his entire life due to complications caused by a tumor on his right leg. After rigorous therapy, he defied his physicians and learned to walk on his own again.
After sustaining a major injury, he was once again told that a career in gymnastics wasn’t in the cards for him. Once again, he pushed through rehab and got back out on the floor. He’s since torn a ligament, but as you can imagine, that didn’t stop him. He’s used to overcoming adversity, and that’s exactly what he’ll do in Rio.
6. Yusra Mardini
This Syrian swimmer has a unique relationship with the water, since the greatest journey of her young life was a harrowing trip across the Aegean from Syria to Greece as she and her sister fled from their war-torn nation. Before they reached the shore, their boat began to fill with water. Along with her sister and another refugee, Mardini became a hero when she pushed the boat to dry land.
And now, as a member of the first Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), she hopes to swim her way to victory in Rio. Based on how far her dreams have taken her, that goal is certainly within reach.
7. Lopez Lomong
By age six, this runner for the United States had gone through more than most of us will in a lifetime. As a child, Lomong was abducted and taken back to Sudan, where he was born, and placed in a prison camp. He was one of the nation’s “Lost Boys,” as was Maker. This was the name given to children who were stolen or orphaned during a civil war that took pace between 1983 and 2005.
Townspeople helped the runner escape and make his way to the Kenyan border. That’s where he remained in a refugee camp for an entire decade. When he’s not competing, he can be found working as an activist to bring education and healthcare to the people of Sudan.
8. Yiech Pur Biel
Biel, a 21-year-old member of the ROT, began running competitively just one year ago. He turned to running because in trying times, it made him feel like something larger than himself when he no longer felt like he belonged to any nation.
Although he’s a rookie, the 800-meter runner shows incredible promise, but his humility is what really sets him apart. As he explained to People, “Even if I will not get gold or silver, I will show the world that being a refugee, you can do something.” He and his team members give faces to one of the world’s most contentious issues, and those faces are symbols of strength and bravery.
9. Kristina Vogel
In 2009, this German cyclist’s Olympic dreams were almost shattered when she was in a horrific car accident. She broke multiple bones, lost most of her bottom teeth, and was even put into a medically induced coma for two days.
After recovering, however, she hit the track once again and pedaled her heart out for her country in London. She’ll do the same in Rio.
10. Yolande Mabika
Mabika’s life was off to a rough start when she was orphaned in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but she found solace in judo that led to her becoming the national champion. She eventually sought asylum in Brazil, where she continued to train.
“Judo gives me a strong heart,” she said. “I started judo to make my life better, to change my life, because I searched for my family for so long.”