The Swimmers, is a powerful new Netflix film based on the true and remarkable story of Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini and her sister Sara Mardini, following their journey fleeing from war torn Syria as refugees to reach Germany. A story of survival, sisters, and strong young Arab women striving for their dreams.
Directed by Sally El Hosaini (My Brother The Devil) who also wrote ‘The Swimmers’ screenplay with Jack Thorne and inspired by Yusra’s autobiography ‘Butterfly’, the story follows the sisters from their childhoods and realising their dreams to be competitive swimmers, when the Syrian civil war throws their lives into disarray. The sisters embark on a treacherous journey to Europe, use their swimming skills to help others survive and try to continue with their much-changed lives to follow their dreams.
Real life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa were cast as Yusra and Sara. With the film featuring numerous swimming scenes and scenarios, from club level to Olympic Games plus open water swimming in the sea, Nathalie and Manal were required to achieve the look and the ability of elite swimmers prior to the film shooting. Production were adamant that they wanted the swimming scenes to look as authentic as possible and whilst body doubles were an option, they wanted the actors to look like swimmers, and have the same swimming mannerisms in and out of the pool as professional swimmers as well as those playing coaches and teammates, as well as the competition and training scenes to be as accurate on film as possible. Also Nathalie and Manal needed to swim in the film’s open water scenes. However both Manal and Nathalie admit they couldn’t swim when the film first came about.“The first time I received the offer for the role, I refused it because I couldn’t swim,” Manal told a press conference for The Swimmers at the Toronto Film Festival on Friday. Nathalie added “Even when she (Manal) told me about the movie, she said ‘it’s about swimmers.’ I said forget about it. I’m not gonna swim, let me finish my studies,” during the TIFF press conference.
This is where Aquabatix was brought in. Some may question why a traditional swimming coach was not brought in. Production realised they needed those who were experienced in achieving what was required for film, working with actors and professional swimmers for filming purposes, rather than those who were focused on achieving swimming training goals, such as swimming a certain distance.
In Aquabatix we have qualified swimming teachers and coaches, some with a background in Olympic level performance, who work within film and TV production to achieve the Director’s brief. Therefore, we can train actors in swimming skills as well as know what it takes to achieve the look, or cheat the shot as such. Whilst Yusra is a 100m butterfly swimmers, our actor Nathalie did not need to be able to swim 100m fly. Nathalie had to learn fly for a few strokes to achieve the classic fly shot. To be able to do this however, Nathalie had to also improve her swimming skills and fitness to look like and have the audience believe she is a swimmer. Manal, whilst not featured as a swimmer as much in the film, also had several swimming scenes and like Nathalie had to look convincing on screen as a professional swimmer. Any swimmer can tell straight away the difference between a serious swimmer and a leisure swimmer, without even getting in the water. The mannerisms were as important. How swimmers hold themselves on land, how they put goggles on, how they hang at the end of the pool in between sets, getting out the pool.
First up, Adele Carlsen, who took on the swimming coaching for The Swimmers under Aquabatix was given six weeks to run a swimming bootcamp with Nathalie and Manal. With the added situation of a Covid lockdown in London, the actors were based elsewhere in Europe. Nathalie and Manal were in Berlin first to meet the ‘real Sven’, Sven Spannekrebs, who coached Yusra when she first arrived in Germany. Sven started Nathalie off on her swimming journey, with water confidence and the start of freestyle coaching. Nathalie was a beginner when Sven took her on, and he managed to get her swimming a small width by the time she made it to London. Adele from Aquabatix who took the swimming training in London, met with Sven on zoom, received the first videos and then took Nathalie on from there, with Manal joining us a few days later.
A fitness coach and physio, George Ashwell who owns Before The Lights, and who is also experienced in working with actors for reaching their requirements for film, was brought in to help develop Manal and Nathalie’s physiques through land training and nutrition. It is quicker to achieve a fitness physique on land than just in water alone, especially with beginner to intermediate swimmers. It also helped with their endurance and recovery which was vital in this process. We had to be careful not to burn them out or injure them.
We were asking a lot of the two actors, both physically and mentally. They also had rehearsals with the Director during this time, costume fittings and we all had to go for covid testing 3 x a week too.
Due to the lockdown, the public were not allowed into swimming pools. Many pools were closed. However, we had access to the London Aquatics Centre thanks to GLL and Better UK, as they remained opened for Olympic athletes to train as allowed by the government. Production was allowed to use the pool due to government regulations. This meant were lucky to get access to an incredible pool four to five hours a day.
The actors had swimming sessions six days a week, with land fitness on three of those days for six weeks. That is intense even for athletes, let alone those not used to physical fitness and the demands of swimming.
Manal had already started learning to swim a year prior but with lockdown had lost some confidence with it. Both needed a lot of work on their freestyle and water confidence before even attempting fly for Nathalie and reaching the 5m depths of the diving pit to take air from a diver for Manal for one of her scenes.
The first couple of weeks were very much focused on water confidence, basic swim techniques and building fitness and strength. We didn’t even touch the fly stroke. The aim for the halfway point was having Nathalie swim a width of good technique FS, with good body alignment, the correct technical aspects of the stroke and breathing. We worked a lot with fins, to help achieve this, knowing we could also use them for some shots in the film, as they would not be seen. With Manal, the aim was to her swim 50m of this as she had started as a slightly higher standard, plus start to submerge to deeper depths, being able to gain her bearings underwater, hold herself under there using her arms, and be comfortable with breath hold and the pressure of 5m depth.
For the second half of swim boot camp, we had to focus on the fly technique and co-ordination with Nathalie, who was now getting physically stronger and more confident in water. Again, we resorted to fins to help power her out the water. Nathalie was a natural at the fly undulating movement, and found this easier than freestyle, especially for just short distances. We always kept to short distance, to keep a good technique for a few strokes rather than try and achieve distance and lose it.
Other skills that Manal and Nathalie both needed was the breaststroke, due to the open water raft scene in particular and ways that a strong swimmer would perhaps deal with pulling a raft in open water which is an essential scene in the film. Also learning to dive off blocks, which can be quite scary for the first time as tilted and reasonably high if you are not used to them, floating with ease on their backs plus swimming in water in clothes and heavy shoes.
This, along with learning how swimmers warm up, put caps and goggles on with ease, swim over lane ropes and get up onto blocks, was a huge ask for the two actors within six weeks but they gave it their all. They turned up on time, sometimes early, and committed to every single session, however tired they were.
The rate of their improvement as swimmers was vast. From beginner and intermediate swimmers at the start to being able to swim fly, FS with ease, have a convincing breaststroke and swim deep under water with the confidence to stay under with a diver to take air, the speed of transformation was incredible. With weekly zoom meetings between the Director, George, Adele plus members of production, we really did attack it like an elite training camp. Nathalie commented at the TIFF press conference; “It was really hard at first, but then we persevered. And once you know how to float, it’s nice in the water and you want to freestyle, and once you have a goal, you want to achieve it.” You can read the full article of their swimming preparation by The Hollywood Reporter here.
You only need to see the film for itself to agree how well it worked.
Whilst we had the swimming coaching going, we were also tasked with finding elite competitive butterfly swimmers who closely matched the real swimmers who competed in the same race as Yusra in the Rio 2016 Olympics. Aquabatix put out a casting call and sifted through many applications. Eventually not only did we find three other swimmers that were superb fly swimmers and matched well, but we managed to find and get on board Olympian Johanna Umurungi, who competed in the same race as Yusra at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The London Aquatics Centre that was built for the London 2012 Olympics was used for the filming of the Olympic scenes. Aquabatix was on hand as well to make sure all the background actors who were playing officials, knew their correct protocol, that the swimmers ‘call room’ was exactly how it would be in a real Olympics and that Nathalie was comfortable throughout with her swimmer mannerisms and ways.
Aquabatix also consulted on how Sven the coach, played by Matthias Schweighöfer, should be on poolside during training, and cast the body doubles for Nathalie and Manal. As Yusra is relatively petite for a fly swimmer, we agreed a younger junior fly swimmer would be the best approach for that role. We found two, Chloe and Emma who matched perfectly. Aquabatix also cast the background swimmers and coach for the swimming training scenes shot in the UK. Director Sally El Hosaini said at the Toroto Film Festival where the film premiered “I think it was a bit of a shock to the system for the pair of them,” notes El-Hosaini. “Obviously, we weren’t going to get them to a level of being Olympic swimmer, so we had a team of doubles.”.
Whilst Aquabatix and the body doubles were booked to also film in Turkey and Belgium to oversee all the open water scenes and other pool scenes shot, unfortunately due to covid restrictions, we were all unable to travel. However, Aquabatix did advise on the body double used in Turkey, who was a synchronised swimmer.
Aquabatix also sourced 12 club swimmers for some of the club training scenes shot in the UK. Beckenham swimming club were on hand as well as a couple of synchronised swimmers who were also competitive swimmers. Beckenham also provided their own swim coach Michelle.
The biggest compliment was from Australian Olympic champion swimmer, Kyle Sockwell, who tweeted after seeing the trailer “Based on the preview, The Swimmers’ looks like it could be the most accurate depiction of competitive swimming in a movie we’ve seen yet”.
Job done. Swimming coach Adele said “I am in awe of Nathalie and Manal. The amount of training over six weeks, both land and swimming was immense and they turned up to every session and fully committed themselves to the training. They really wanted to push themselves which helped too. It was tiring for them, but their results were incredible and I hope they are proud of what they achieved. Six weeks is barely anytime at all, to go from beginner to swimming laps and being super confident underwater. What we achieved is incredible. I am proud of how our swimming background actors conducted themselves on long filming days, and my business partner Katie was essential in securing all the club swimmers for the outdoor scene. Kyle’s tweet was a huge compliment. We knew people would question why production went to those renowned for synchronised swimming. As a swimming teacher, I know how to teach and as a swimmer, I know what the strokes should look like at elite level. As a synchronised swimmer, I know how to match and achieve a look and with my experience working in film, I knew how this industry works and how to get those shots in such limited time”.
‘The Swimmers’ is so much more than a story about competitive swimming. It is a positive story about refugees, how anyone’s life can be overthrown by war with the struggle and decisions to survive and a story about sisters. Actors Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa shine with their powerful portrayals of Yusra and Sara, and we hope they are proud of their newfound swimming skills that were so important to the film. As Nathalie said after reading Kyle’s tweet “WE DID IT”.
The film opened the Toronto Film Festival, is also opening the Zurich film festival and will be shown at the BFI too. It is fully released on Netflix on November 23rd 2022. To catch the full trailer click here:
Yusra Mardini has been fully involved in the film and was even a body double for herself for one scene. To find out more about Yusra’s story and rise to Olympian you can purchase her book Butterfly, which inspired the film The Swimmers.
To find out more about the IOC refugee Olympic team, click here.