The Swimmers, a true story of courage and determination

Nathalie Issa raises a fist in The Swimmers

The Swimmers is based on the true story of an Olympic swimmer who left Syria in 2015 during the war and made a perilous journey to Germany with her sister and cousin. The film was written by Sally El Hosaini and Jack Thorne and directed by Sally El Hosaini.

The Swimmers is a very long film. It uses the time to explore the deteriorating situation in Syria that drove sisters Sarah Mardini (Manal Issa) and Yusra Mardini (Nathalie Issa) with their male cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek) to set off on a perilous journey across water and land to reach Germany.

Nathalie Issa puts on swim goggles in The Swimmers

The girls were both professional swimmers, coached by their father (Ali Suliman). The younger sister, Yusra, was the better swimmer and had dreams of making it to the Olympics. The next Olympic games would be in Rio in 2016.

Because Yusra was 17, the family believed that when the girls reached Germany, they could apply for reunification with their family and their father, mother and youngest sister would be allowed to come to Germany.

The Refugee Story

A group of refugees traveled together and became friends and supporters for each other. The only familiar face to me in the film was one of the refugees, Emad (James Krishna Floyd). They traveled by plane, bus, boat, truck, car, and on foot. They were always in danger, but the most dangerous part of the journey was the leaky boat trip from Turkey to Lesbos. When the boat started to leak and the motor refused to work, Yusra and Sarah got out of the boat and swam beside it to reduce the weight in the boat. They were rightly regarded as heroes.

The most striking image of many striking images in this film was when they finally walked ashore on Lesbos and the ground was covered with a vast, thick blanket of discarded orange life jackets from all the refugees who had made it there before them. It really made the point that while we were thinking only of Yusra and Sarah and their companions, the problem was vast and growing worse all the time.

Watching the situation the family faced reminded me of the 2017 film The White Helmets.

The Refugee Olympic Team

After waiting months for papers in Germany, Yusra and Sarah set out to find a swim team. They introduced themselves to a coach, Sven (Matthias Schweighöfer), and fast talked their way onto the team.

Poster for the Swimmers with Yusra and Sarah cavorting in the ocean after Yusra's win in Rio.

Yusra quickly let Sven know of her ambitions to swim in the Olympics. That year there was a team of stateless athletes called the Refugee Olympic Team and he got her on that team. She did swim in Rio on 2016. (She also competed in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, but the movie didn’t get to that. Wikipedia has more on her.)

Sarah went back to Lesbos to help the refugees who just kept coming and coming.

The Swimmers took on two stories, and told them both well. One was about the courage, resilience, and determination of people fleeing unlivable situations in search of something better. The other was the story of the determination and drive that create Olympic level athletes. It was visually powerful in many scenes, adding to the impact of the story.

This Netflix movie is worth the watch. It gives you much to think about in terms of the worldwide refugee crisis, and it’s an inspiring story of courage and determination on an individual level.

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