In 2015, Yusra Mardini almost drowned in the Mediterranean while fleeing the civil war in Syria. She survived thanks to her swimming skills – and, just a year later, competed at the Rio Olympics. Now Hollywood wants to tell her story.
Almost every morning, a Syrian girl with a winning smile takes a deep breath and dives into the Olympic swimming pool on the outskirts of Berlin. As she rips through the water with a butterfly stroke honed from a lifetime of swimming, Yusra Mardini never forgets how close she came to drowning in the Mediterranean in 2015 as she fleed the civil war in Syria.
When the motor on their dangerously overcrowded boat stalled off the coast of Turkey, Yusra and her older sister, Sarah, swam for more than three hours in the churning seas, pushing the boat towards the Greek islands. They helped save not just their own lives but those of 18 other refugees.
“I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned,” Yusra said with typical nonchalance after her story became known, “because I am a swimmer.”
A swimmer she is. As she dives again into the water, her babyish face hidden behind goggles, Yusra uses the memory of that traumatic journey and the bloody civil war from which she escaped to power her dreams.
In the two and a half years since she arrived in Europe, Yusra – pronounced “eesra” – has competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She has met the Pope and Barack Obama. She has given speeches at the United Nations and to the World Economic Forum in Davos. She’s been appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She has written a memoir, Butterfly, and a feature film about her, directed by Stephen Daldry, the Oscar-winning director of The Hours and Billy Elliot, is now in the works.
“Yes, we are refugees, but we are normal human beings,” Yusra, 20, tells me she wants people to know. “We think about our futures. We care about our kids. We are doctors and engineers and teachers. We are educated, but we just don’t have the chance to continue our normal lives because of war.”
As lofty as her achievements have been since she fled Syria, Yusra’s focus is now back on swimming. She knows that she must get her times much lower to have a chance of competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. “If I am going to be realistic,” says Yusra, who at 5’5’’ is small for a swimmer, “I know it will be really good if I am in the top 20 or 40 in the world. But I’m not going to take that as an answer, so I am putting everything I can into this until the next Olympics.”