Is The Swimmers based on a true story? Incredible inspiration behind the Netflix film

There's a tragic inspiration behind the film

Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini, Manal Issa as Sara Mardini in The Swimmers.
(Image credit: Laura Radford/Netflix)

Two Syrian refugees flee their war torn country embarking on a dangerous journey in the hunt for a better life - and you'll never believe what happens next.

Netflix film The Swimmers sees real-life sisters Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa, play siblings going to desperate measures to get to safety. Forced to flee their warring homeland of Syria, the sisters embark on a dangerous journey in a dinghy to cross dangerous oceans to safety. After a deadly passage, their lives take a very different turn. The film premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2022. Following a small cinematic release, it is currently available to stream on Netflix. Read on to find out the real inspiration behind the film, and what happened to the sisters once they made it to safety.

Also on Netflix, The Wonder true story (opens in new tab) is drawing gasps from audiences. The film starring Florence Pugh, represents a sad time for young girls in history. Currently riding high on the streamer, is Tim Burton's reimagination of the life of Wednesday Addams. For those who've binged the series and have the questions, the Wednesday ending explained (opens in new tab) is here to clear everything up. Wednesday filmed (opens in new tab) across a very Gothic European city - for those who like to research where their favourite shows were shot, we've done all the work on this one for you.   

Is The Swimmers based on a true story?

Yes, The Swimmers is based on the true story of Syrian sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini, who arrived in Europe illegally as refugees. Yusra later went on to compete in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics as part of the IOC Refugee team.

Along with their cousin Nizar, Yusra and Sara flew to Turkey on the pretence of being tourists. Along with more refugees from various other countries, they then took an inflatable dinghy to Greece. Meant for far fewer people and not designed to be used as a safe method of long distance transportation, the dinghy suffered engine difficulties halfway through the journey. When it began filling with water, Yusra and Sara bravely jumped into the ocean.

Once in the water, the sisters swam alongside the dingy to prevent it from sinking, for three hours across the remainder of the Aegean Sea. They remained by its side until they arrived at the Greek island of Lesbos - their actions saved the lives of the remaining 16 passengers. The shoreline of the island was strewn with orange life jackets - as depicted in the film - that serve as a reminder of the many who came before them, also searching for safety. Once there, they made their way to Germany on foot, reaching a Berlin refugee camp after 25 days of traveling.

Yusra Mardini went on to compete in the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, and again in Tokyo in 2020. Her inspirational story has led to her being named the youngest ever Goodwill Ambassador for the UNHCR, at the age of 19. However, according to Digital Spy (opens in new tab), Sara's journey has been very difficult since her ordeal to find safety. She made the decision to return to Greece and carry out humanitarian work. She was arrested in 2018 for assisting refugees, spending over 100 days in jail. She has been accused of smuggling, espionage and fraud, and her trial is ongoing. Repeatedly maintaining her innocence, Sara could spend up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

Sara Mardini and Yusra Mardini pose for a photograph on the red carpet for the film,The Swimmers, at Roy Thomson Hall during the start of the Toronto International Film Festival on, Thursday, September 8, 2022

(Image credit: The Canadian Press/Alamy)

Who is Sven in The Swimmers?

Sven Spannekrebs was Yusra’s swim coach. Portrayed by Matthias Schweighöfer in the film, Sven was responsible for getting Yusra her place at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

According to Women's Health (opens in new tab), Yusra met Sven shortly after arriving in Germany, who was coaching at a club near their accomadation. An Egyptian interpreter introduced the pair, and Sven "immediately decided Yusra was good enough to be part of the team”. He stated that her technical foundation was good, but her aerobic foundation needed some work. He trained Yusra until she was one of 43 candidates selected to join the Olympic Refugee Team.

Sven said "When she arrived in Germany as a refugee, we had to get her body fat down and build muscle to make up for those lost years in speed. I never expected we would go to Rio." He also participated in the film by training Nathalie and Manal Issa for the portions of swimming they were required to do on camera. Now aged 41, Sven currently works as a public relations manager in stakeholder communication for the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023, and has been in this role since September 2022.

A post shared by Sven Spannekrebs (@sven_spannekrebs) (opens in new tab)

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The Swimmers: Cast

  • Nathalie Issa (My Favourite Fabric, Unforgettable Memory of a Friend) as Yusra Mardini
  • Manal Issa (Parisienne, The Sea Ahead) as Sara Mardini
  • Ahmed Malek (The Furnace) as Nizar
  • Matthias Schweighöfer (Army of The Dead, Oppenheimer) as Sven
  • James Krishna Floyd (My Brother The Devil) as Emad
  • Ali Suliman (Jack Ryan, Paradise Now) as Ezzat Mardini
  • Kinda Alloush (The Benefit, The Originals) as Mervat Mardini
  • Elmi Rashid Elmi (Dune) as Bilal

Speaking to Forbes (opens in new tab) about the film, director Sally El Hosaini said how important it was to capture Yusra and Sara's story truthfully. She said "Yusra and Sara were involved in the making of the film from the very beginning. A lot of research was conducted with Yusra and Sara’s family."

She continued "Predominantly we stuck to the truth, but there were times when fictionalizations were made - but they were always made to allow us to honour the larger refugee story rather than just the story of Yusra and Sara. As inspirational as Yusra and Sara’s story is - they are the 1% - and we also wanted to represent the 99% of refugees that don’t have that happy ending or that outcome."

Manal Issa as Sara Mardini in The Swimmers

(Image credit: Ali Güler/Netflix)

The Swimmers: Reviews

The Swimmers is currently receiving a positive response, holding a 79% critic score and 87% audience score on review aggregator site, Rotten Tomatoes.

Sara Clements from Pajiba (opens in new tab) said "The Swimmers is harrowing and triumphant, following the true story of Olympian Yusra Mardini and her sister Sara as they flee war-torn Syria. The film is an ode to their determination. A tale of survival that leaves you in exaltation."

Romey Norton from Ready Steady Cut (opens in new tab) said "Netflix is becoming a streaming service for untold, unbelievable stories and this film is certainly a must-watch."

An audience member said "Touching Movie with great and colorful picturing , the visualization is intense, the movie kept me in front of the screen till the end. I loved it, and the movie does indeed speak for millions of refugees worldwide."

Another added "Excellent! Compelling drama, real life. It could be the fate of any of us - we want to be safe, we want to achieve, we care about our families and friends. And there are so many who face this struggle. The sisters who portrayed the Mardini sisters are excellent actors."

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Lucy Wigley
TV writer - contributing

Lucy is a multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ experience writing about entertainment, parenting and family life. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and moms.com. In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and telling you why you should watch them.