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Syrian refugee sisters Yusra and Sara grew up swimming, and left their home country because the Syrian war, which broke out in March 2011, was making life very dangerous for them. When their house was destroyed and an unexploded bomb landed in the pool where Yusra was training, they knew they had to leave.
The sisters traveled to Europe on a small boat, and when the motor began to stall, they got out and swam alongside it until they arrived at Lesbos, a Greek island. The sisters eventually reached Germany, where they met Sven Spannekrebs, the man who would become Yusra’s swim coach. Sven, who is played by Matthias Schweighöfer in the movie, eventually lands Yusra a spot at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Ahead, read all about how Sven trained Yusra, his role in The Swimmers, and where he is now.
Sven met the Mardini sisters in Germany.
Shortly after arriving in Germany from their swim to Lesbos, Sara and Yusra met Sven, who was coaching at Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, a swim club near their refugee center, per ABC News. An Egyptian interpreter helped bring the three together, according to The New York Times, and Sven “immediately decided that Yusra was good enough to be part of the team,” according to The Guardian. (Sara realized she didn’t want to make a career out of swimming, Vogue reported.)
Her “technical foundation” was very good, but her aerobic foundation wasn’t, due to her lack of training at the time, per The New York Times. He helped them train, and eventually helped Yusra join the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Refugee Olympic team for the 2016 Rio Olympics. (She was one of 43 candidates chosen.)
“When she arrived in Germany as a refugee, we had to get her body fat down and build muscle to make up for those lost years in speed,” Sven told Vogue in 2017. But he was extremely impressed with both Yusra and Sara’s abilities: “It was clear these two sisters had trained seriously. Their technique was good,” he continued. “I never expected we would go to Rio.”
Sven helped Yusra train very hard.
Her schedule boiled down to: two-a-day, two-hour water sessions, one hour of aerobic training on dry land, and school in between, according to The New York Times. “She did everything I asked: wake up at 6:00 a.m. to go to the pool. Classes. Gym. Back in the pool,” Sven told Vogue.
Although they were aiming for the Olympics, they didn’t think 2016 would be their year. “There are chances that the Olympic dream might come true for Yusra and her family, which all of our club wishes, but at the same time she is one of more than a million, so let’s hope there will be a perspective for all of them, be it here or in their home countries,” Sven told The Washington Post in 2016.
Yusra competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The duo originally wanted to work towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but Yusra trained hard enough to get into the 2016 games in Rio, where Sven served as one of the backroom staff for the refugee team, per CNN. “In the last five months, her progress was really, really good. Better than I expected,” Sven told The New Yorker in April 2016. “When it will happen it will happen.”
In June 2016, Mardini received one of ten team berths (a.k.a., she got a position on the team) to compete in Brazil, The Olympics reported. She went on to win her 100m butterfly heat and rank 41st of 45 competitors overall.
"Many athletes can take her as a role model because she's so focused on her goals and organizes her life around them," Sven said at a 2016 press conference for the Olympics, according to ABC News.
He’s been a source of support for Yusra and their family.
Sven is “more like a big brother” than a coach to Yusra, according to Vogue. He was worried about how much publicity she was exposed to in 2017, especially since the violence in Syria wasn’t slowing down. “She became more and more comfortable,” he told the outlet. “I ask her if she wants to just be a normal teenager for a while, and she always says, ‘No! This is my life. I’m happy to be alive.’”
And, in 2018, Sara was arrested while working with a refugee aid org, facing charges of spying and trafficking, and smuggling migrants into the country. She spent 107 days in prison before being released on bail, per TIME. Sven worked with Sara's college, Bard University in Berlin, to put together a team of lawyers to help her, per ABC News. And despite the fact that Amnesty International said Sara's charges are “trumped up” and “farcical,” she could face 25 years in prison.
Sven also taught the actors playing the Mardini sisters how to swim.
Fun fact: The actors portraying Yusra and Sara, Nathalie and Manal Issa, are actually sisters in their own right. And Sven gave Nathalie some of her very first swim lessons. “She was in Berlin at the time during the lockdown and he was kind enough to let her into his swimming pool,” The Swimmers director and screenplay writer, Sally El Hosaini, told Forbes. (Yusra also doubled as herself for some of the swimming pool portions when they were finishing shooting the film.)
Oh, and the real Yusra actually appears in some of the swimming scenes!
Sven still works with the Olympics.
He's about 41 years old now, and works a public relations manager in stakeholder communication for the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023 based in Berlin, a role he began in September 2022, according to his LinkedIn. (The Special Olympics are for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities.) Sven also helped Yusra organize the “Yusra Mardini Swim Camp” in Berlin, which taught refugee children how to swim in 2021, according to The Olympics.
Before that, Sven was a manager at Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, where he taught the Mardinis, for over four years, supervising sports projects and working on media relations since June 2018. And of course, he worked as Yusra’s swim coach from October 2015 to September 2018.
Sven took to Instagram on September 26 to announce his job shift, saying his time at Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 is “definitely not over.”
“I am grateful to all colleagues and friends in the club for the wonderful time so far,” he wrote. “I am now very much looking forward to my new tasks and am very happy with the way I have been received. The tasks are varied and exciting. The biggest inclusive event in the world will soon stop in Berlin and we will make it shine.”
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