Netflix just released the trailer for a real-life biopic of two young sisters who left their home in war-torn Syria for a new life in Europe – and the chance to compete at the Rio 2016 Olympics. FINA caught up with the story’s main protagonist, two-time Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini.
Titled “The Swimmers,” the upcoming drama arcs the true-life story of sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini (played by sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa, respectively) who chart a new path and life through swimming and survival.
The sisters’ cinematic story begins in Damascus during the Syrian Civil War and chronicles their 25-day odyssey that took them through nine countries before they make it to Germany where they receive the right of residency and resume their Olympic aspirations in the pool.
They travelled mostly on foot, but also across the Aegean Sea where their dingy broke down. Instead of clinging to the boat’s rails in the open sea between Turkey and Greece, the sisters jump in, grab the bow line and kick up the black water, inching the boat towards the distant shore.
“It’s crazy to think that millions of people go through that,” Mardini said in an earlier interview with FINA. “I think about it a lot because I tell my story a lot. I was very, very lucky to be fine – and my sister, not to lose her.”
The biopic also draws inspiration from Mardini’s autobiography Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian – My Story of Rescue, Hope & Triumph.
For those not in attendance in Toronto, circle your calendars and get your popcorn ready for 23 November when "The Swimmers" premieres in select theatres and on Netflix.
Since we last saw sprinter Mardini compete in the 50m butterfly and 50m freestyle events at the 19th FINA World Championships earlier this summer, she’s continued writing her own script: following her competitive aspirations in the pool and all the while reminding everyone of the value of refugees.
FINA caught up with Mardini at the aquatics headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland not long before she headed off for the world premiere in Toronto. Change is afoot: Six years after fleeing war in her homeland, Mardini expects to receive her German passport in a few months, thus ending her refugee status.
After your races at the FINA World Championships in Budapest, you told us this would be your last time competing as a refugee. This has to be an important stage of your life. What’s next?
My career has been amazing. I’m still swimming, but I don’t know what the next goal is.
My movie – it’s about my sister’s and my life -- is going to be out soon. It’s called The Swimmers and we’re going to be at the Toronto International Film Festival for the world premiere.
This is really, really exciting. That’s what’s going to happen next. Right now, my full focus is on the movie; just enjoying the moment and seeing what the world is going to say about the movie.
How was it to see your story told movie form?
That was very, very surreal. I never imagined myself in a movie or having a movie about my life story. I always told my story because I wanted to change something for the better for refugees. I want people to know that we’re normal people. We have dreams; we have ambitions.
Just watching the movie, I laughed; I cried. It’s just a well-crafted movie. Having a world premiere for the film is very exciting. It’s going to be very relatable for many swimmers: not giving up, reaching the Olympics, which was my dream growing up.
It’s about two girls that did not want to give up. It’s very emotional because, in the end, it’s my life story.
All this talk about emotions brings me back to watching your sports career. How was it when you were in Tokyo last summer for the Olympics? It must have been something to be the Refugee Olympic Team flagbearer, carrying in the white flag with the five rings. How did this feel?
To be honest, I felt the same in Rio. Walking into the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, we knew there wasn’t a crowd in the stands (due to covid), but we knew the media was covering it around the world.
We knew the Opening Ceremonies is one of the seminal events of the Olympic Games and that so many people are tuned in and watching. Carrying the flag was a very proud moment for me because I was representing millions of refugees around the world.
You know, giving and holding this message of hope. We can go after our dreams and achieve what we want if we really work hard for it. Tokyo was my second Olympics, so I knew what to enjoy and I knew that it’d be a special moment. It was just perfect. It was amazing.
Also, the volunteers made you feel very welcome, at the Opening Ceremony and everywhere. Just having the other athletes around was also amazing as well.
In addition to your work as a UN Ambassador, I understand you’re starting a foundation. What are your goals, wishes, and ambitions for the foundation?
We will launch the foundation soon. It’s going to be called Butterfly. Its focus will be on helping refugees around the world, working from the sports and education side.
We want this foundation to be a safe place for everyone, a place for people who want to help but don’t know how, they can come to us and volunteer with us or work with us to make the journey of refugees a bit easier.
To be honest, I don’t know what to expect. This is the first time I’ll have a foundation. We’re going to take it step-by-step, project-by-project. I just want to make a change in this world, and I think this foundation is the right step for the here and now.
You chose butterfly as the name of your foundation. Why not freestyle?
Butterfly is my favourite stroke. I have a book titled Butterfly. I’m also inspired by the butterfly; you know how the butterfly is, it gets out of its cocoon and begins to fly.
And I’ve always loved the butterfly stroke more than anything else. When we were thinking of names, we were like, ‘Why not butterfly?’ The name represents me and who I am. So, Butterfly it is.
Contributing: Luca Fasani and Jacopo Briatore