A Girl and a Dream {Book Club}

I remember so vividly the first time I watched the Olympics. It was in 1996.

I wasn’t a huge sports fan, so when my mom started talking about athletes and competitions I wasn’t interested. But she turned on the TV and I was mesmerized by the idea of people from all over the world gathering in one spot.

Gymnastics takes place at the start of the Olympic Games, and that year the US women’s gymnastics team had a chance to win gold. I watched as Amy Chow, Dominque Moceanu, Shannon Miller and the rest of the team excelled and struggled. My mom let us stay up late to watch those final vaults when Kerri Strug competed even after hurting her ankle and helped push the team to victory.

I was much too tall and too old at that point to consider gymnastics, but I absolutely fell in love with the Olympics. I cheered out loud with my family as Michael Phelps set record after record, ate breakfast with my teammate while watching the Opening Ceremonies when we lived in Cambodia, and am currently following those who qualify for the Games happening in Tokyo. There’s just something about it, isn’t there?

As we start our book for this month, Butterfly by Yusra Mardini, we meet a girl who is inspired by the Olympics and determined to get there herself. Our section this week covers her family and early life, the start of her swimming career and the shifting safety of her life in Syria.

Other than a 6-week ballet class, I didn’t do sports or compete growing up. Did you? Did you identify with Yusra’s passion and drive, or her struggle to stay interested as life intensified around her?

It was interesting to read at the start of the book about Yusra’s family and their dynamics. Her father was a swimmer himself and very passionate about it as a coach. He was determined that his daughters would be swimmers too, even from a very young age. “I swim before I can walk,” Yusra wrote. At one point her father told her and her sister, “If your dream isn’t the Olympics, you aren’t a true athlete.”

A big chunk of our section this week follows the Arab Spring, which started with uprising and protests in Tunisia in 2011 and spread through several surrounding countries. Yusra and her family watched as the violence got closer to their home in Syria, not believing that it would actually affect them. But the brutality did reach Syria and is still ongoing there.

I can’t imagine the decisions people faced or still face—wanting to stay in the place that is their home, wanting to protect their family and loved ones, or like Yusra and her sister, wanting a future and something to pursue. Yusra witnessed countless friends just disappear, sometimes without knowing what happened to them, or later finding out they had been able to leave the country and settle elsewhere.

At the very end of this section, Yusra and Sara, her older sister, are able to secure a flight to start the journey out of Syria. We’ll have to check back in next week to see what happens!

What part of Yusra’s story was the most fascinating to you? If you could compete in the Olympics, which sport would it be in?

Here’s the schedule for the book:

July 13- Chapters 7-12

July 20- Chapters 13-17

July 27- Chapters 18-22, Conclusion


  1. Rachel Kahindi July 6, 2021

    I remember watching gymnastics, but my favorite was figure skating. I remember watching Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992. She was so beautiful and physically strong. She could do amazing things. Then they split summer and winter Olympics to different years, so we got to watch figure skating again in 1994 (Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding).

    In Yusra’s story, what fascinates me has been the decision of whether to stay or go. For so long they thought nothing bad would happen where they lived, then they somehow got used to living around the violence. I’ve mainly heard about refugees after they leave. Reading about the before is really eye-opening.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann July 6, 2021

      Figure skating is such a beautiful sport! I remember watching the ladies you mentioned too. 🙂
      That’s so true, normally we read stories of the journey or the settling part of someone’s story. It was interesting how they kept thinking, “It will be over soon, it will get better.” I wonder if I would have thought the same thing and been more hesitant to leave myself.

  2. Karen Ammari July 6, 2021

    The question of whether to stay or go, the pressure to decide, to know what the future holds and how to get there. Such universal questions. The settings is one of devastation but the questions are ones I face and my recent high school graduate is struggling with even as I write this! how do I decide? In her return to swimming in the face of danger Yusra proclaims “I want to do something!” And even as she contemplates leaving Syria, swimming is what compels her. It makes me ask of myself, what compels me?

    1. Sarah Hilkemann July 6, 2021

      Karen, those are such great questions, and so hard to wrestle with! I keep thinking about what you asked, “What compels me?” Yusra wanted to keep doing something she loved and that wasn’t possible in her home country anymore. I need to keep pondering that myself. 🙂

    2. Bayta Schwarz July 6, 2021

      Karen! Lovely seeing you here 😊 I cheated a bit and looked up her Wikipedia entry. Turns out she now lives in your city!

  3. Bayta Schwarz July 6, 2021

    I have to admit, I found the first few chapters quite hard to read. The pressure their father put on those girls was unbelievable. It felt like it was their job to live his dream…
    I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to have your life and your word disintegrate like that. Syria went from stable to chaos in such a short space of time. And like others have said – the decisions people had (and have) to make are incredibly hard. Maybe it helps being 17…
    Oh and I do love the Olympics! I am not hugely into any one sport, it’s the variety I love the most. I also don’t really remember any particular moments – all the Olympics kind of blur into one 🤦‍♀‍😊

    1. Sarah Hilkemann July 7, 2021

      Bayta, not having grown up in a family where there was pressure to participate in any one thing, it was hard to read about how hard Yusra’s father pushed her and her sister. I suppose to reach the Olympics you have to start training young. I wonder how many people who have competed in the Olympics started in a sport because it was their parents’ dream or goal? I’m not dedicated enough to even think about how hard one would need to train or the mental strain of working so hard at a sport. 🙂

      1. Bayta Schwarz July 7, 2021

        I’m sure there are many layers to this but I remember her saying a few times that she and her sister had no say in the matter at all – they were expected to do whatever it took to get to the top. It just seemed so sad.

  4. Michelle July 7, 2021

    Loving Yusra’s story. My heart has been broken over the plight of refugees during our recent years. A few years back my family met up with a group of African refugees as we were rushing through security in Frankfurt. Ragged clothes and plastic IOM bags in hand.. One woman was barefoot with a baby tied to her back. My heart broke as I wondered where they were from and where they were going. And then we blinked and were running to our gate for our next flight. I feel like so many in the developed world see a “refugee problem” and forget we are talking about living, breathing, people. We need more Yusra’s who can stand up and humanize an issue. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book.

    In high school I was a dancer (feels like another life in another world). We used to joke that dancers were ice skaters who were afraid of the ice. So we all loved watching ice skating. Through a strange twist, I wound up working as a gymnastics coach in high school and my first few college years as well. So gymnastics was, and probably still is, my favorite. My sister had dreams of the 2000 Australia olympics as a gymnast. But she actually suffered a minor fracture in her back that ended her gymnastics career.

    We don’t have a TV in our home. And our internet can really be tricky in our rural village. So I’ve had a tough time following Olympics over the last decade. I’m hoping to at least catch some of this summer.

    1. Bayta Schwarz July 7, 2021

      I so agree! I was living in Germany when there was the big influx of refugees (mostly from Syria) back in 2015. Helping out in different ways (as many of us did) certainly helped to see beyond the numbers and headline stories and to notice the individual instead.

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