The Profile Dossier: Yusra and Sara Mardini, the Sisters Who Swam to Freedom
“I am strong enough to make others believe in their dreams again.”
Swimming saved the Mardini sisters’ lives — literally and figuratively.
As they fled war-torn Syria, Yusra and Sara Mardini found themselves in a small, rubber dinghy in hopes of crossing the Aegean Sea to safety. Fifteen minutes into their journey, the motor suddenly stalled.
Water began to fill the boat, and the passengers began throwing their belongings into the sea in an effort to make it lighter. Then someone yelled that four people should get off the dinghy to prevent it from sinking. The majority of the passengers didn’t know how to swim.
Sara jumped first. “The men were sitting on the boat, and she was in the water,” Yusra remembers. Yusra was the next to jump.
For three and a half hours, the Mardini sisters swam alongside the boat until everyone reached the shore of Lesbos, Greece. There, they undertook a long and dangerous journey through Europe until they made it to Germany.
When they ended up in a refugee camp in Berlin, the sisters had a singular goal: Find a swimming club. That’s because the only place they felt at home was in the pool. For years, the girls’ father, Ezzat, had trained them to become competitive swimmers with dreams of going to the Olympics. Those dreams were shattered when Syria erupted into a civil war.
In Germany, there was an opportunity for a second chance. Yusra and Sara began training with a coach named Sven Spannekrebs. He saw their potential and helped them gain muscle, speed, and confidence.
Ultimately, Sara decided she didn’t want to swim competitively but, rather, focus on working as an activist helping refugees get to safety. Yusra continued training with Sven until she qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics as part of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team. She qualified again in 2020 to swim for Syria, but she chose to represented the Refugee team once again.
Now, Yusra is studying at the University of Southern California, and she’s planning on launching a foundation for refugees that will merge her two passions: education and sport.
“Swimming has taught me a lot: it has taught me patience; it has taught me to know when to ask for help; it saved my life,” Yusra says. “Most of all, it taught me to try again. If you’re going through something tough, it doesn’t mean that it is over.”
If you’re wondering what happened when Yusra made it to the Olympics, watch this:
On the label of refugee: For a long time, Yusra didn’t identify with being labeled a refugee – it came with assumptions that weren’t reflective of her experience. “You don’t choose to become a refugee, you leave your country because of war and violence,” she says. “Now, the word ‘refugee’ means so many things to me. In the beginning, I was in denial of it. But then I realized that it’s just a word, and it doesn’t matter what the word means. I am who I am.” This is a must-read.
On developing a winning mindset: The reason the Mardini sisters feel so at home in the water is because they had a lifetime of swimming training, thanks to their coach father, Ezzat. Yusra had competed for Syria in the world championships, traveling to Dubai and Turkey to take part in competitions. “I was always special, all of my life,” says Yusra today. “I had so many Syrian records, everyone knew who I was. My sister, too. We had had a leadership role since we were young, we were taught how to be winners, to lead, to come up with ideas out of nowhere.”
On becoming an Olympian: This 2016 profile gives a snapshot in time of Yusra and her coach Sven as they prepared for the Olympics. Then 18 years old, Yusra was bemused by the gaggle of journalists eager to hear her story. Here’s how Yusra took it all in stride while continuing to train around the clock.
On the power of hope: Yusra’s memoir Butterfly tells her story, from Syria to the Olympics to her current work with the UN as a Goodwill Ambassador. Mardini tells her story in the hopes that readers will remember that refugees are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, chased from their homes by a devastating war.
On Sara Mardini’s unexpected journey: Sara didn’t go to the Olympics, but instead, she returned to Lesbos with an NGO to help other boat refugees by rescuing them from the water and supporting them with translation. In 2018, she was arrested. Greek authorities accused her and other helpers of numerous crimes, including smuggling, espionage and fraud. Sara, now 27, was remanded in custody (first in Lesbos, then in Athens) for more than 100 days before she was released on bail and could return to Berlin, where the rest of her family now live. She faces a combined sentence of up to 20 years.
On swimming to freedom: The Mardini sisters were being trained by their father to become Olympic swimmers for Syria in 2015. The civil war’s violence and instability made it clear — seek refuge, or lose all hope for the Rio Olympics. “Swimmers” depicts the heart-wrenching true story of two young refugee sisters and the incredible challenges they faced on their journey to freedom.
On internal motivation: In this interview, Yusra explains what motivates her on a daily basis. She says she wakes up at 6:30 a.m. every morning, and she hates it. But she says she does it because she’s focused on the end result. “It’s not because I like waking up at 6:30,” she says. “It’s because I love swimming, it’s because I have a message, and it’s because it’s my passion.”
On the danger of the work: Sara returned to Lesbos as the first female Syrian volunteer to work with the Emergency Response Center International as a search and rescue swimmer and translator. In this interview, Sara speaks in depth about the experiences of returning to Lesbos to volunteer and what happened when she was then arrested after completing humanitarian work.
Don’t let society define your identity: In Syria, the Mardini sisters were known as elite swimmers. In Germany, they were known as refugees. I’ve written before that sometimes, we voluntarily label ourselves, and sometimes society labels us. When we do it, labeling can act as a compass to our values. When someone else does it, a label can be a lifelong prison sentence. When civil war broke out in Syria, Yusra writes, “I’d lost my nationality, my identity, my name. Now I was refugee.” Before long, the label “refugee” had become “an insult, a name to hurt and humiliate.” Yusra makes the powerful point: There’s no shame in being a refugee as long as you remember who you are. Refugees, she says, are doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, and students. “It was war that made us terrified parents, sacrificing everything to save our children from carnage,” she writes. “It was persecution that drove us from our homes in search of peace.” Today, she’s reclaimed the “refugee” label and she works relentlessly to show that none of us are defined by a singular identity — we are much more than the narrative society crafts about us. We are who we decide we are.
You can’t plan courage: There’s one sentence that Yusra says that I can’t stop thinking about. She says, “We actually didn’t know that we would be strong enough until we were there and went through everything.” And that’s how life normally goes: We can’t plan courage or bravery. We can only know it once we’re in the moment. Is it your flight or fight that gets activated? Which path do you choose? The Mardini sisters offer a great reminder that you can plan your life up to a point. From there, you have to trust that you’ll step up in times of uncertainty and rise to meet the challenges you can’t predict.
Use your voice for good: When you’re stripped of all of your belongings, awards, and even your home, there is one thing you always have: your voice. Yusra feels it is her responsibility to use her voice to motivate people to fulfill their own goals no matter the hurdles that lie ahead. “I was really shy when I was young,” she says. “No one imagined that I would have a really strong voice.”
Play a mental movie to gain confidence: In the Netflix film ‘The Swimmers,’ there’s a showstopping scene when Yusra is at the Olympics having a conversation with her sister Sara. Here’s how it goes:
Yusra: “I heard other swimmers talking. They said I shouldn’t be here. They said I don’t deserve it.” Sara: “They’re right. You shouldn’t. You should be at the bottom of the Greek sea. Or sleeping on the roadside of Hungaria. Or you should be dead in a hole in Darayya.”
Yusra: “I just want to be a swimmer.”
Sara: “You know, Olympians are people who are supposed to do amazing things. Remember what Baba used to say? ‘Find your lane. Swim your race.’ It’s all bullshit. You should swim for all of us. You should swim for Baba because he didn’t. Swim for me because I couldn’t. Swim for Sven because he couldn’t. Swim for Shada. Swim for Razan Haddad. And for everyone who died trying to find a new life. Swim for them. You’re so much more than an Olympian.”
In the highest-pressure moments, it helps to remember the why behind your actions. Play a mental movie of all the times you’ve faced obstacles that brought you to your knees for you to rise again. As Yusra stepped on the blocks, she remembered that she was representing all the people whose dreams never came to fruition, that she had survived and persevered through it all, and most importantly, that she deserved to be there.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“Sometimes your purpose in life is way bigger than you can ever imagine.”
“Sometimes life takes you to places that you would not imagine ever being in.”
“I am strong enough to make others believe in their dreams again.”
“Old ways won’t open any new doors.”