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Tokyo 2020 Paralympics

Afghanistan's refugee Paralympian flees war and bullying to swim his way to success

Overcoming every hurdle, Afghanistan's refugee athlete Abbas Karimi has let his passion for swimming propel him towards his Paralympic dreams.

Para Swimmer Abbas Karimi

Afghanistan's refugee para swimmer Abbas Karimi (Source: Getty)


Sohinee Basu

Updated: 27 Aug 2021 8:43 AM GMT

Hailing from a country that is constantly caught in a state of political and social turmoil, Afghanistan's Abbas Karimi has found himself in all-too-many difficult situations throughout his life. In retrospect, it seems like Karimi has been on the run - looking for safety, a place of refuge, a space of acceptance and most importantly, finding liberation through swimming.

With no option left but to flee the country ravaged by war and conflict, Abbas now lives as a refugee in the United States of America and has been able to give his dreams a place to fully germinate and grow as he is taking part in the Tokyo Paralympics.

"I needed to be somewhere I could be safe and keep training and be a Paralympic champion," he said in an interview earlier this month on Zoom to the New York Times. "When I left Afghanistan, that was with me, that idea of what I'm going to be."

Physically impaired with limb deficiency since childhood, Karimi does not have both his arms and therefore became an easy subject of discrimination, especially in a country like Afghanistan.

Yet there was something that always drew him to the waters and the 2017 World Championships silver medallist created his very first ripples in it in his native land of Afghanistan only where he began taking part in freestyle swimming and breaststroke events ever since he was 14.

With utter chaos breaking out in his home country of Afghanistan again where the Taliban has assumed control once again, Karimi is entering the Tokyo Paralympics with a disturbed mind as he finds the situation "very, very hard" to make peace with.

In fact, Karimi might just be the only Afghani athlete at the Games as the two players who were supposed to represent Afghanistan haven't been able to reach Tokyo due to the country's dire circumstances.

Overcoming great odds to be where he is today, Karimi, often unwinds with his current coach, Marty Hendrick at Fort Lauderdale, Florida by watching Marvel movies and who feels his pupil is a superhero himself.

"He thinks he would be a great villain. I could see him as a superhero, kind of a mixture of Aquaman, Superman and Spider-Man, with all his abilities," Hendrick tells New York Times. At the Tokyo Paralympics, Karimi will be eager to create magic again as he will take to the water - chasing glory for both himself as well as for his native land - Afghanistan.

Overcoming bullying, Karimi waded into freeing territories as a para swimmer

Abbas Karimi (Source: Reuters)

Abbas Karimi had an exceptionally difficult childhood given that he was born without both arms in a country that practises an unhealthy amount of discrimination - Afghanistan. Often the subject of ridicule, Karimi had anger issues as well for obvious reasons.

He would do kickboxing and led a violent few years - often hitting other people up for being unkind to him. "When you are born disabled without arms or legs or missing body parts in Afghanistan, you are considered hopeless," says Karimi, who has been taunted and called names all his life because of his disability.

It was with swimming that Karimi found peace as he realized that even though he does not have arms, he is gifted with legs and with its power alone, has it in him to conquer the world.

Although his father wanted Karimi to look for a life within the walls of the mosque, Karimi had better plans for himself and he knew he had to leave the Taliban-threatened State at any cost, to succeed in life - and thus began his escape plan.

However, even whilst being a critic, Karimi's father was his earliest fan and a great cheerleader of his son. In 2019, soon after Karimi came sixth in the World Championships in the 50 metre butterfly race, he lost his father, who was one of the first people to spur on his dream.

Not willing to see impairment as a drawback, Karimi's father would remind his son, "'You don't have arms, but you became a swimmer and you are something now."

After a lot of hardships and juggling as many as 4 refugee camps, Karimi found his home in Turkey initially. It was here that his tryst with swimming took on a larger shape as Karimi was determined to go the mile to swim in a pool. Noticing his talent, the Turkish coaches encouraged him to try the dolphin kick style of swimming.

"It is one of the hardest strokes in swimming," he said. "But the only way that I could swim faster and become a champion was butterfly," Karimi told NY Times.

Sports was a saviour for him and he knew if he went to the Paralympics and became a champion, it would mean everything.

While in Turkey, he started posting videos and asked for support to go to the Paralympics when Mike Ives, a retired wrestling and football coach in Portland reached out to him - and miraculously helped him obtain refugee status in the USA, where he currently lives and swims happily.

"Swimming calms me down. It's like a shield for me, always protecting me. If I'm upset or anytime that I have any issues, I just get in the water and it relaxes me. Swimming saved my life. - Abbas Karimi

Currently, Karimi is aiming for a podium spot at the Tokyo Paralympics and becoming an image of inspiration to fellow para athletes and becoming a beacon of hope for as many as 80 million people who have been displaced, searching for refugee camps and asylum's, since the Second World War.

His coach, Marty Hendrick has placed no pressure on his superhero however. "He's already a champion," Mr. Hendrick said. "There are not enough awards for what he's done, but I wanted him to enjoy this, have fun with it," as he salutes the grit and brilliance of Karimi every time.

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