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Yusra Mardini: The Syrian Olympic athlete who swam for three hours to save lives

The Swimmers is a new film based on the story of two Syrian sisters that literally swam to Europe as war refugees

The Olympics are all about dreams, strength and an undying determination. It takes an extraordinary athlete to reach the Olympics and a supernatural one to swing that gold medal around their neck.

Someone like Yusra Mardini, a 24-year-old Syrian swimmer, who swam for three hours in the open sea while pulling along a dinghy carrying mothers and children, to prevent it from sinking.

"I had to jump overboard with my sister to stabilise the boat. It was the only way to save all our lives," said Yusra.

Forced to flee their home in war-torn Syria in August 2015, professional swimmers Yusra and Sara Mardini, set off from the Turkish coast to Lesbos on a small dinghy that failed to carry them across the Aegean Sea after it capsised, leaving its 18 occupants in anguish.

"There were 18 of us in the boat, more than it could carry, so it was scary," said Yusra. "But we were all running from war and a lot of refugees go through this journey."

Yusra was only 13 years old and living in the capital, Damascus, when the revolution started in her home country. She had grown up in a warm home, enjoying a regular life celebrating birthdays, swimming training, going to school and partying with friends on the city rooftops.

It all ended abruptly, four years later, when Yusra, aged just 17, left with her sister for Germany to flee the violence and bombs that began raging near their home and stole a close friend's life.

Directed by Sally El Hosaini, a hard-hitting movie based on their arduous journey with a moving ending that saw Yusra competing in the 2016 Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympics Team, is now streaming on Netflix.

In The Swimmers, the film-makers prioritised authenticity as they worked with actual refugees, focusing on every risk and hardship, including the brief moments of triumph in the sisters' long journey.

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"When speaking about the Middle East, people have this idea of a very grey world where everything is destroyed on the floor, and so it brought me a lot of joy to see how it was captured. It showed the sad reality of us trying to be normal teenagers, which was very true," said Yusra.

Played by Lebanese actresses and real-life sisters, Nathalie and Manal Issa, the movie, Yusra explains, portrays the many sides of being a refugee, who has family and ambitious dreams.

She said, "One of the scenes that is the most important to me is where me and my sister are dancing at my birthday party and then there is bombing. It shows that, as people living in a warzone, we did try to normalise our lives as much as possible," she added.

Powerful scenes of love, sacrifice and trials are documented from Yusra's journey. Viewers will see her buckle under moments of overwhelming exhaustion and watch her grow stronger and more determined as she reluctantly drops her most prized possession of gold medals into the sea, before leaping into the sea with her sister to lead the boat and those on board to safety.

The decision to leap overboard came after a local coast guard official harshly rejected their calls for help when their boat began to sink.

Yusra Mardini speaks on stage during the Q&A at the screening of 'The Swimmers' at The Soho Hotel on November 16, 2022 in London, England. [David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Netflix]

Yusra Mardini speaks on stage during the Q&A at the screening of 'The Swimmers' at The Soho Hotel on November 16, 2022 in London, England. [David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Netflix]

​​The reality that governments spend billions to turn away refugees rather than use the money to help and benefit those migrating is a side of the refugee story that rarely gets told. And, so when such accounts are displayed on the screen so bluntly, as seen in The Swimmers, it is devastating.

Footage of the refugees crossing barbed wires and riding on smuggler lorries, while a baby latches on to her mother during the perilous journey, is chilling. However, the faithful trust and bond among the group, including an Eritrean woman and an Afghanistan man, and the sisters, warms the viewers' hearts right away.

"There were 30 other people we bonded with through kindness and conversations we had along the journey. We got through a lot of difficult situations with humour, because it was a rough journey and it was a way to cope with it and not give up.

"So having those people around really helped us and we had so much trust even though we didn't know them at all. I think it was the shared sorrows."

"Swimming made me feel at home in Germany," she said. "It was the only thing that felt familiar and on the journey, swimming saved my life."

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Both sisters had been swimming competitively in their country, coached by their dad, Ezzat Mardini, who was a former swimmer himself and envisioned Yusra as a champion in the Olympics.

"I hated swimming when I was young. I started when I was three years old and I would run away to my mum or, sometimes, even hide in the bathroom because the water was cold," recalled Yusra.

"But, slowly, I started realising that I was actually good at it and began getting very competitive with other, older swimmers."

But after the war escalated, and the family was forced to move around to avoid the violence, the sisters inevitably stopped training.

"It was very difficult to maintain a normal life during the war," shared Yusra. "It was difficult to even achieve normal goals. But, when I left Syria, I realised how important it is to me and how much value this sport holds for me."

After finally reaching Germany, Yusra had met Sven Spannenkrebs, a coach at a swimming club located near the refugee centre, where she was temporarily stranded with her sister. In awe of her skills, Sven sponsored and even trained her for the IOC Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

"My sister and I were laughing and crying while watching it and I was turning to Sally every two minutes and saying 'Oh my god this is how it really was, this scene is amazing!" described Yusra.

"Honestly, every five minutes I was left sobbing and holding my breath. The movie captured so many things that were important in my life and, when it ended, it really settled that I really did go through all that."

"You don't wake up every day and think about everything you went through in your whole life, so I was pretty shocked that I'm only 24 and all this has happened in my life."

Had the plot of the movie not been based on true experiences, from dancing on the rooftop while bombs exploded, to being smuggled at the back of suffocating lorries, then finally winning a gold medal at the Olympics, viewers would be forgiven for mistaking the film for a fantasy.

"I want the viewers to understand that refugees do not choose to abandon their countries; they leave because of war and violence," said Yusra. "And there is more than enough space on this planet for everyone."

Yusra, today, is studying Film and Television Production at University of Southern California in Los Angeles, while currently launching a charitable foundation in Germany and the US to help educate refugees through sports.

She said, "I'm going to keep working with UNHCR as an ambassador, and enjoy my time swimming just for fun, not competitively right now, as I keep moving forward with my new life. I'm excited for what's ahead of me."

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