It all started when Yusra Metwally put ‘ocean swimming’ on her personal bucket list. Now the Swim Sisters – a swimming squad formed by Yusra in 2017 – helps to give many women from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds in Western Sydney the chance to enjoy the physical and mental benefits of being at peace and at one with the water.
When Yusra created the ‘Burkini Babes’, as the squad was originally known, she was an enthusiastic but non-regular swimmer who needed to improve her technique. She realised the only way to become a stronger swimmer was through practice.
“After reflecting on why I didn't swim, I realised a lot of it came down to feeling really self-conscious about being at the beach or the pool and being covered in a modesty suit,” says Yusra, who wears a hijab as a reflection of her commitment to the Muslim faith. “That was the starting point. I wanted to see if there were other women who were keen to participate along with me.”
The Swim Sisters is now a 120-strong squad of women with a range of life experiences who enjoy an inclusive, non-competitive, caring environment. Many swim with the group regularly, either working on their stroke in a pool or taking part in blue-ocean events; others join in when they can. What helps to unite them is a shared sense of community.
“We have a lot of fun,” says Yusra. “It's a very social group – there’s no formal membership. I think that informal grassroots aspect has been quite powerful in bringing people together.”
Swim Sisters attracts women who faced similar barriers that stopped them from enjoying swimming. The squad environment has helped give them the chance to overcome their fears and discomfort, and enjoy the simple joy of being in the water.
“It’s something everyone can connect to, whether it's being in a pool or, even better, going into the ocean – experiencing that whole new world of underwater marine life,” says Yusra. “Enjoying the invigorating, refreshing feeling of getting in the water. It’s so valuable.
“We are very lucky to live in a country with access to so many beautiful beaches on our doorstep. I think it’s quite a loss to not experience that.”
She cites the example of a Western Sydney mother who emigrated from Turkey. After joining in many of the Swim Sisters’ swim programs – including one held in conjunction with the Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club – she participated in the 2km Bondi Blue Water Challenge last year. Now she’s a surf lifesaver.
Advocating for change
While Yusra says it’s been rewarding being able to help so many women enjoy swimming, she’s now on her way to achieving a few personal goals. She’s training to be a surf lifesaver and would like to participate in longer ocean swims (she completed a 1km swim at Bondi not long before the COVID-19 shutdown). She’s also taking the lead in developing programs that will help meet the needs of the Western Sydney community.
“When I became a mother last year, I noticed a big gap in swimming services available for mothers in the local area,” says Yusra, who’s trained as a lawyer. “I noticed a lot of women who don't swim coming to the pools to bring their children for lessons. I want to develop programs that enable mothers to have swim correction lessons and go for a swim while accessing childminding.
“I see my role as advocating for the local area and trying to address any barriers to swimming where communities feel excluded from participating.”
Yusra says another major motivation to help others comes from a need to improve water safety among multicultural communities and culturally diverse communities.
“Many are victims of drowning every year in summer on our beaches,” she says. “Living in Western Sydney gives you less opportunity to access nippers training for children and surf lifesaving training or water safety opportunities for adults, or regular ocean swimming to build confidence in navigating harsh swimming conditions and rips.”
Yusra is proud of what she’s achieved with Swim Sisters. She believes helping others is part of “being human”, and that we should lend a hand when we can.
“I think we can always reflect on challenges we may have had and think about the value we can add to someone’s life by being able to give them the support they’re after in their time of need.”