It’s one thing to read about Syrian Civil War refugees, and it’s another thing entirely to watch their story play out inÂ The Swimmers on Netflix, a new biopic that tells the true story of Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini and her sister, Sara Mardini.
Directed by Sally El Hosaini, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jack Thorne, The Swimmers recounts the Mardini sisters’ harrowing escape from their war-torn home country, Syria, in 2015. The sisters were not just refugees, but also heroes who helped save the lives of 18 fellow refugees by swimming a sinking boat across the sea. Even more unbelievably, Yusra Mardini went on to swim in the 2016 Olympics.
Mardini wrote about her story in her 2018 book, Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian – My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph, which also served as inspiration for the script. The movie condenses the story in order to fit it into a two-hour-and-fourteen-minute runtime, so certain things were cut and changed. But don’t worry, because Decider has you covered. Read on for a breakdown of The Swimmers true story, including how accurate The Swimmers is to the true story of Yusra and Sara Mardini.
Is The Swimmers on Netflix based on a true story?
Yes. The Swimmers is based on the true story of Olympian Yusra Mardini and her sister Sara Mardini, who escaped their home country of Syria during the Syrian Civil War in 2015. While on the run to Greece, the Mardini sisters found themselves crammed onto a small dinghy boat meant for 7 people with 18 other migrants to cross the Aegean Sea. When the engine cut out and the boat began to sink, the Mardini sisters and two other people jumped out to swim, towing the boat the rest of the way across the sea.
What is the true story of Yusra Mardini and Sara Mardini?
Yusra and her older sister Sara Mardini were teenagers growing up in Syria when the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011. Both sisters had been swimming competitively in their country, coached by their dad from a young age, who was a former swimmer himself. But after the war escalated and the family was forced to move around to avoid the fighting, the sisters stopped training.
Both sisters wanted to flee Syria and attempt to have a normal life beyond the war. Yusra especially wanted to swim again. But their parents didn’t want the family to split up, and it would be impossible for all five family membersâincluding the youngest Mardini sister, Shahedâto travel to Europe together. In a 2017 profile for Vogue Magazine, Mardini said, “I started saying, âYou know what, Mom? Iâm leaving Syria. If I die, Iâm going to die in my wetsuit.’” Finally, the mother allowed Yusra and Sara to leave, accompanied by two male cousins.
The sisters flew to Turkey, where they met up with a smuggler helping a group of refugees from many different countries escape to the Greek island Lesbos, by crossing the Aegen Sea. After waiting four days in a forest in Turkey near the beach, the smuggler finally returned with a small dinghy motor boat. The sisters and 18 other refugees squeezed in. According to a 2016 AP report, on the first trip, the refugees were caught by the Turkish coastguard and driven back. On the second attempt, they made it acrossâbut barely.
After about 30 minutes, the motor on the boat failed and the boat began to sink. Yusra and Sara jumped into the cold water and tugged the boat the rest of the way, briefly assisted by two other passengers. Yusra described the harrowing experience to Vogue, saying, “We used our legs and one arm eachâwe held the rope with the other and kicked and kicked. Waves kept coming and hitting me in the eye. That was the hardest partâthe stinging of the salt water. But what were we going to do? Let everyone drown? We were pulling and swimming for their lives.”
It took three and a half hours for the sisters to pull the boat ashore in Lesbos. But even when they arrived, they were still not out of the woods. Mardini told Vogue, “There was literally nothing on the other shore. I had no shoes, as I had to kick my sandals off in the water. Someone on the road gave me a pair of shoes. But people were suspiciousâI would not say they were friendly.” They had to walk and catch rides across Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary.
Finally, the sisters made it to Berlin and were placed in a refugee camp, where they stayed for six months. There, they heard about a Berlin swimming club, tried out, and were trained by coach Sven Spannekrebs, Mardini’s mentor who would coach her to the 2016 Olympics in Rio on the all-new refugee Olympic team. Spannekrebs helped speed up the process for the sisters to get the papers they needed to live in Germany, which can take refugees years. “I never expected we would go to Rio,â Spannekrebs told Vogue. âI just wanted to make their lives easier.â
While Sara ultimately decided to drop out of competitive swimming and went on to work for an NGO in Greece helping refugees, Mardini managed to become one of 10 displaced athletes who competed for the refugee team, first formed in 2016.
How accurate is Netflix’s The Swimmers?
The Swimmers, like most movies based on a true story, condensed or changed some details of the Mardinis’ story in order to make a more efficient, entertaining movie. While in real life the sisters were accompanied by two male family members, they were combined into one fictional character, a cousin named Nizar (played by Ahmed Malek) in the movie. The detail of the first attempt to cross the sea, only to be caught by the Turkish coast guard, was also cut for time. Other charactersâlike a refugee woman and her infant child, and a love interest for Saraâwere also invented for dramatic effect.
But the filmmakers worked hard to include the real sisters in the process and capture the feeling of the truth, despite not making a documentary. Director and co-writer Sally El Hosaini, screenwriter Jack Thorne, and executive producer Tilly Coulson met with the real Mardini sisters several times while making the movie. The filmmakers also worked closely with a researcher who had worked on Mardini’s 2018 memoir, Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian â My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph.
In an interview for The Swimmers press notes, Sara Mardini said she and her sister give this retelling of their story their stamp of approval, saying, “It’s a privilege to be chosen from a million people to have our story told but we’re not different. We’re not more special than any other refugee and I think that’s what this movie is going to show.”
Fun fact: the actors who play the Mardini sisters on screen, Lebanese actresses Manal Issa (who plays Sara) and Nathalie Issa (who plays Yusra), are also sisters in real life. The Issa sisters met with the IRL Mardini sisters and felt an instant connection. In the press notes interview, Nathalie Issa said, “I wasn’t trying to copy things that Yusra does, it was just bringing myself, my experience into the character of Yusra, to create a new character, a mix of us. I was playing this person who loves to swim and who one day sees her life being changed and destroyed and tries to cope with it.”
Manal also added that the IRL Sara Mardini is “very different now” from the wild, party girl she plays in the movie. The real Yusra Mardini even appears in the movie for a brief momentâas the stunt double for Issa while shooting swimming scenes that required her Olympic levels of talent. “It was super weird to double the girl that is playing me,” Mardini said in the press notes interview. “But Iâm still glad that even for five seconds I am in the movie. I’ll tell everyone!â
Did Yusra Mardini place in the 2016 Rio Olympics?
No. As shown in the film, Yusra did win a race at the Rio Olympicsâher preliminary heat in the 100-meter butterfly, which she won with a time of 1 minute and 9.21 seconds. However, she was not fast enough to advance to the semifinals in that race. Her overall ranking was 40th, and only the top 16 moved on. Still, it was an incredible achievement from a swimmer not only from a developing nation but who also missed nearly two years of training while literally on the run from a war.
Mardini competed for the refugee team again in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where she got a time of 1:06.78 in the heats for the womenâs 100m butterfly, but once again did not advance. According to Olympics.com, Mardini is now a German citizen and will not be eligible for the refugee team in 2024, but has not ruled out swimming for Germany in the Paris Olympics.
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