Film to follow teenager who crossed the Mediterranean and competed at Rio

Sam Jones
Yusra Mardini competes in the Women’s 100m Butterfly heats on the first day of the Rio Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on 6 August in Brazil. Photograph: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Stephen Daldry’s films have chronicled the lives and struggles of Brazilian street children, the madness and melancholy of Virginia Woolf, and, most famously of all, the trials and triumphs of a young boy from County Durham who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer.

Few of his characters, however, have had to show quite as much resilience and determination as his latest protagonist, Yusra Mardini.

The Billy Elliot director is now attached to a film about the teenage Syrian refugee who fled her home in Damascus in 2015, survived a perilous crossing of the Mediterranean and went on to compete at the Rio Olympics last year.

I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea, because I am a swimmer

Mardini – already a promising swimmer – and her sister Sara travelled from Syria to Lebanon and then on to the Turkish port of Izmir, where they climbed into an overcrowded dinghy bound for the Greek island of Lesbos.

They were less than half an hour into their journey when the motor stopped and the boat threatened to capsize. Of the 20 people aboard, only three knew how to swim: the Mardini sisters and another woman. For more than three hours, they did what had to be done, swimming alongside the dinghy, pushing, pulling and cajoling it until they reached land.

“I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea, because I am a swimmer,” Yusra recalled a few months afterwards.

She eventually settled in Germany, where she began training with Sven Spannekrebs, a coach at a swimming club in Berlin. Within months, Mardini was in Brazil, one of the 43 stateless athletes competing in Rio as the first ever refugee team. On 6 August last year, she won the opening heat of the 100m butterfly.

“Everything was amazing,” she said afterwards. “The only thing I ever wanted was to compete in the Olympics. I had a good feeling in the water. Competing with all these great champions is exciting. I’ve only been back swimming for two years so we’re only now getting back to my levels of before.”

Since then, Mardini, who is now 19, has travelled the world acting as an ambassador for refugees, meeting President Obama and Pope Francis and delivering speeches to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Yusra Mardini: ‘The only thing I ever wanted was to compete in the Olympics.’ Photograph: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

On Friday, Working Title Films – makers of Love Actually, the Bridget Jones series and Billy Elliot – announced that they had acquired the rights to develop and produce Mardini’s life story as a feature film.

Daldry said he was thrilled to be slated to direct a film about what he called Mardini’s “extraordinary story” and all that it represented.

“Yusra reminds us of the human cost of the tragedy and the incredible fortitude, perserverance and hope of one young woman who struggles for a future,” he said. “Yusra’s dream of living in peace is the story of our time.”

Sara Mardini said she and her sister wanted their story to be told so that it might “help [people] deal with both the big and also the small issues in their daily lives”.

Yusra herself could not be reached for comment on Friday. According to her agent, Marc Heinkelein, she was, characteristically, in the pool when news of the film deal broke.

“She’s excited but she’s at a swimming camp in Fuerteventura,” he told the Guardian.

“At the moment, her schedule is just crazy. She is still very focused on swimming and wants to participate in the Tokyo Olympics [in 2020]. And with swimming it has to be 100%; you can’t just give 80%.”

Mardini at the Wasserfreunde Spandau training pool Olympiapark in Berlin, Germany. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for IOC

Heinkelein said that Mardini and her coach used to joke about her life becoming a film one day “but they didn’t even dare that it would happen. Now a few months later, it’s a reality”.

The film is likely to be released late next year or in 2019, and a book deal is also in the pipeline. But, said Heinkelein, Mardini’s focus was on swimming, education and her role as a global ambassador for refugees.

“She’s a 19-year-old teenager with all that a teenager is,” he said. “Of course she realises what’s going on in her life but she’s concentrating on the swimming.”

Five months before she dived into the pool to win her heat in Rio, Mardini said that qualifying for the Olympics would show the world what people like herself were capable of.

“I want to make all the refugees proud of me,” she said. “It would show that even if we had a tough journey, we can achieve something.”

Heinkelein said the refugee-turned-Olympian-turned-ambassador was unlikely to be changed or distracted by the latest turn in an already remarkable life.

“She’s a very funny, self-confident person and she’s 1,000% authentic,” he said. “That’s just the way she is and maybe that’s her secret.

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