Refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini’s inspirational journey celebrated in new movie The Swimmers

Yusra Mardini made history as part of the first IOC Refugee Olympic Team, and now her inspirational journey to the Olympic Games Rio 2016 is being celebrated in the movie The Swimmers, which premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Yusra Mardini Getty Images

Her extraordinary journey from war-torn Syria to the Olympic Games Rio 2016 always read like the plot of a movie: the champion swimmer, who helped lead a sinking boat to safety as she fled to Europe, and eventually made her Olympic dreams come true. Now, her story has been given the full Hollywood treatment, having been turned into a movie produced by Working Title Films – makers of blockbusters such as Everest, Notting Hill and Love Actually.

Entitled The Swimmers, the film received its worldwide premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on 8 September and has also been chosen to open the Zurich Film Festival on 22 September.

"This movie is really important to me and my sister, because we want to share our story with the world and show that refugees still have dreams and can reach their goals even if they go through rough journeys,” said Mardini. “This film gives me the opportunity to continue to raise awareness of the difficulties and dangers faced by refugees and make people understand that becoming a refugee is not a choice.”

Mardini’s courageous story made global headlines when she competed at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 as part of the first-ever IOC Refugee Olympic Team. Fleeing her home in Damascus with older sister Sara, Mardini – a talented swimmer who had competed for Syria at the 2012 World Championships – found herself on an overcrowded dinghy in the Aegean Sea, as the siblings sought to find safety and a new life in Europe.

When their vessel’s engine failed during the treacherous crossing, and the boat started taking on water, Mardini and her sister plunged into the frigid waters to help push their fellow refugees to dry land on the Greek island of Lesbos.

“Sport not only saved our lives,” says Mardini. “Sport taught me to work hard to reach my goals, to be patient, to be resilient. This is how we have been raised: never give up and always give your best.”

Her extraordinary journey finally ended with her reaching Berlin (Germany), where she was able to resume her swimming career, , before joining the IOC Refugee Olympic Team for Rio 2016.

Rio 2016 marked the first participation of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team, which was announced by IOC President Thomas Bach at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in October 2015, in response to the global refugee crisis that had seen millions of people in the world displaced.

Mardini joined nine other athletes, who originally hailed from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to compete alongside their fellow athletes in Brazil, sending a message of hope and inclusion to millions of forcibly displaced people around the world and inspiring the world with the strength of their human spirit.

Yusra Mardini Getty Images

"Being part of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team opened my eyes,” explains Mardini. “I realised that all of us on the team had a strong voice, that we could represent millions of refugees around the world and give them hope.”

In October 2018, the IOC Session decided that the IOC Refugee Olympic Team would also compete at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. , 56 promising athletes from 13 countries benefited from “Olympic Scholarships for Refugee Athletes” – a dedicated programme launched by Olympic Solidarity after Rio 2016. The IOC Refugee Olympic Team participated in Tokyo 2020, with 29 athletes competing in 12 sports.

Strengthening the support provided to refugees and populations affected by displacement continues to be a priority for the IOC and forms part of Olympic Agenda 2020+5 – the new strategic roadmap of the IOC and the Olympic Movement through to 2025. To achieve this, not only will there be an IOC Refugee Olympic Team at the Olympic Games Paris 2024 and the Youth Olympic Games Dakar 2026, but increased access to sport for displaced young people is being ensured 365 days a year through the work of the Olympic Refuge Foundation.

After competing as part of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016, Mardini was appointed as the youngest-ever Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – and she returned to the Olympic stage again for Tokyo 2020, joining 28 fellow refugee athletes, who competed across 12 sports.

Mardini’s incredible story will now be brought to new audiences by The Swimmers, which is directed by BAFTA winner Sally El Hosaini, whose credits include Babylon, My Brother the Devil and The Fifth Bowl. The film stars Lebanese actresses and real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa as Mardini and her sister Sara, and also features German actor Matthias Schweighöfer as Mardini’s coach, Sven Spannenkrebs.

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