Olympics Day 1 Recap: Syrian Swims Race of Her Life

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RIO DE JANEIRO (CNN) – A year ago, Yusra Mardini was swimming for her life. At the Rio Olympics, the Syrian refugee is swimming for the love of the sport.

And what a joyous day Saturday was as the 18-year-old won her heat in the 100 meter butterfly. No, she didn’t advance to the semifinals — but that’s not what her Rio journey was about.

It wasn’t about winning a gold medal; it was just about being there, with the best swimmers in the world.

“Everything was amazing. It was the only thing I ever wanted, was to compete in the Olympics,” she said. “I had a good feeling in the water, so I’m happy for that.”

Last August, Mardini was fleeing her war-ravaged nation when the Mediterranean Sea started to swallow the boat she was in.

Mardini and her sister took to the water and for hours pushed the dinghy toward Greek shores until it got there safely.

She was only in the water for 1:09.21 on Saturday, a time not among the 16 best, but she never had dreams of making the semis.

“I’ve only been back swimming for two years, so we’re only now getting back to my levels of before. But I’m pleased,” she said.

Mardini has one more event, the 100-meter freestyle Wednesday.

Here are some of the other memorable moments from Saturday, the first full day of competition.

U.S. teen nabs first gold: The Star-Spangled Banner was the first national anthem to be played at a Rio podium ceremony, thanks to 18-year-old Virginian Ginny Thrasher. She won the 10-meter air rifle competition for women, edging Du Li of China by one point.

Bad break for gymnast: You have to feel for Samir Ait Said. In 2012, he missed the Olympics after he broke his right leg at the European Championships. On Saturday, the Frenchman had bad luck again, breaking his other leg as he tried to land his vault on the first day of men’s gymnastics in Rio. His spirit is undiminished; he told fans he’ll be back at the next Olympic Games.

Copacabana communion: Of all the sports at these Olympics, perhaps none is more emblematic of Brazil than beach volleyball. Beautiful Copacabana Beach is the Mecca of the sport, one Canadian player said. And the boisterous Brazilian fans, well, they expect more gold.

Cycling chaos: Belgian Greg van Avermaet wasn’t sure what place he was as he rode the final kilometers of the men’s road race. He knew he was near the front but crashes that left leaders spilled on the punishing course confused him. There was one man among the breakaway three who had avoided disaster, Poland’s Rafal Majka, but he caught cramps and van Avermaet and Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark sped by him to take gold and silver.

Venus sets: The first big upset came on the tennis courts where four-time gold medalist Venus Williams was bounced by unseeded Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium, the 62nd-ranked player in the world. Williams, who at 36 is likely in her final Olympics, still has a chance at one more gold as she will team with her sister, Serena, in doubles.

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