Is The Swimmers a true story? A look at the Netflix movie's inspiration

Manal Issa in The Swimmers
Manal Issa in The Swimmers (Image credit: Ali Güler/Netflix)

The Swimmers has become a hit on Netflix, inspiring many as it depicts two sisters, Yusra and Sara Mardini, who leave their home country of Syria during its civil war in 2015 to try and make it to Berlin in order to live a better life. After a harrowing journey with others and seeing the dangers and stigma that comes with being a refugee, one of the sisters strives to pick up her dream of becoming an Olympics swimmer.

While it is made clear that The Swimmers is "based on a true story" at the front and in the end credits, after watching the movie, which is "Certified Fresh" and has an audience score of 85% on Rotten Tomatoes (opens in new tab), many viewers may be asking themselves just how much of the incredible story they've just watched actually happened.

Let's take a look at the facts and how they are depicted in The Swimmers.

Was there a bombing at a swimming event?

One of the most striking scenes while the story is still taking place in Syria is when Yusra is competing in a swimming event and a bombing occurs. First bombs hit outside the arena, then cause the roof to collapse until finally a bomb lands in the water, just missing Yusra. It does not detonate and Yusra is pulled out of the water by Sara and their father.

In a video (opens in new tab) where the real Yusra Mardini and Nathalie Issa, the actress who portrays her in the movie, discuss elements of the movie, Mardini reveals that there was a bombing at a pool. She does not mention if a bomb landed in the water while she was swimming, but she does share that events like this caused her to wonder whether or not her dream of competing in the Olympics could be possible.

Did Yusra and Sara swim across the Aegean sea?

Elmi Rashid Elmi, Ahmed Malek, Nathalie Issa, Nahel Tzegai, Manal Issa and James Krishna Floyd in The Swimmers

Elmi Rashid Elmi, Ahmed Malek, Nathalie Issa, Nahel Tzegai, Manal Issa and James Krishna Floyd in The Swimmers (Image credit: Laura Radford/Netflix)

After deciding to leave Syria and head for Germany, where they hope to be able to bring their family along after through family reunification, Yusra and Sara need to make their way to Greece by boat across the Aegean sea. The movie shows them traveling with a large group of other refugees in a small, badly maintained raft. Eventually, the motor on the boat breaks and with water getting in, Yusra, Sara and a few other refugees jump in the water and help swim the boat to the shore of Lesbos, Greece.

This harrowing act is true. In a profile on Olympics.com (opens in new tab), Yusra details the experience:

"We were on a dinghy that was supposed to be for vacation. Only seven people are allowed on it, but we were 20 people. Usually it's like 10km, so it takes round about 45 minutes in these small dinghies. The boat was already broken somehow and after 15 minutes the motor stopped; it didn't work anymore.

"My sister jumped in the water from one side, and I jumped from the other side which she wasn't very happy about. She started screaming at me to go up to the boat even though we were both swimmers.

"After that, two guys also jumped from either side, and we tried with one hand to put it on the rope and then do kicks to stabilize the boat and so on. That took us three hours and a half until we reached the shore."

Though, as the movie depicts, this was not the end of their journey. They then traveled across Europe until they were able to reach Germany. The rest of the Mardini family also eventually was able to relocate to Germany.

Did Yusra win her swimming heat at the 2016 Rio Olympics?

Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa in The Swimmers

Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa in The Swimmers (Image credit: Laura Radford/Netflix)

With the help of a German swimming coach named Sven (played by Matthias Schweighӧfer in the movie and based on Yusra's coach Sven Spannenkrebs), Yusra qualifies for the Olympics as part of the first-ever Refugee team. Though she had some reservations about labeling herself a refugee, Yusra competes and even wins her first heat at the games, which is where the movie concludes.

All of this is pretty accurate. The real Mardini, again in the video alongside Nathalie Issa, explains that she did have conflicting feelings about competing for the Refugee team at the Olympics, but she said that taking part in the Opening Ceremony changed her viewpoint. 

"It was a moment for me where I realized this is not only your dream, this is not only about you anymore, it's about millions of people," she said. "You're representing people who need the hope, people who need your voice, so I am gonna swim for all of them."

Yusra did win her first heat. Her final results from the 2016 Olympics saw her finish 40th overall in the 100 meters Butterfly.

What happened to Yusra and Sara Mardini?

Manal Issa and Nathalie Issa in The Swimmers

Manal Issa and Nathalie Issa in The Swimmers (Image credit: Ali Güler/Netflix)

Yusra would compete again for the Refugee Olympic Team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; unfortunately, she did not advance far enough to post an official result from the games. Outside of the pool, Yusra was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency (opens in new tab), UNHCR, in April 2017. At 19, she was the youngest ambassador ever for the agency.

As shown in The Swimmers, Sara Mardini did not continue to compete as a swimmer after arriving in Berlin but instead returned to Lesbos with the goal of helping other refugees along their journey. Sara was at one point arrested for her work helping refugees and faces charges (opens in new tab)of "state-secret espionage and disclosure" and "smuggling and money laundering." If convicted, she could face as much as 25 years in jail. The trial is still ongoing, though Amnesty International describes the accusations as "unfair and baseless." 

You can stream The Swimmers right now on Netflix.

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd (opens in new tab).