Paralympic swimmer Abbas Karimi, born without arms, poised to be first refugee medalist at Tokyo Games

·5 min read

Drowning in his own anger at the world for being born without arms, Abbas Karimi said the water saved him. During his childhood growing up in Afghanistan, the 24-year-old was always getting into fights with bullies who'd mock him for his disability.

"There was a lot of rejection and judgement, people calling me armless," Karimi said of his childhood, speaking to USA TODAY Sports. "I was a very angry kid. I was mad at the world and this life not being fair. I questioned why God created me this way."

Now the Paralympian can thank those bullies for fueling him in the pool – where he's channeled his anger into a competitive drive that's positioning him to make history. Ever since his brother built him a 25-meter pool at 13, where Karimi discovered he can swim with his legs and chest, the water has been a safe haven.

"The water became the only thing that would cool me down," he said. "When I'm in the water, I can relax and don't have to fight. That fire inside me doesn't have to go towards the bullies anymore or my disability. It can go towards winning."

Mohammad Abbas Karimi is chasing gold at the Paralympic Games.
Mohammad Abbas Karimi is chasing gold at the Paralympic Games.

Winning gold, specifically. Karimi is hoping to become the first member of the Refugee Paralympic Team to ever medal. He's one of six refugee athletes who have been forced to flee war, persecution, and human rights abuses, now competing in Tokyo. The Refugee team became the first independent Paralympic team at the 2016 Rio Games – paving the way for Karimi's success story now. He became the first refugee to win an international medal when he took silver in the 50-meter butterfly at the Mexico 2017 World Para Swimming Championships.

"It's very meaningful because I'm representing 82 million displaced people around the world," said Karimi, who was recently appointed a High Profile Supporter for the UN Refugee Agency. "Then when I get out of the water and see other (Paralympic athletes) like me, I realize I'm not alone in this life. So I want to be that for others."

His journey to get to the Tokyo Games – held from August 24 to September 5 – has undoubtedly been arduous. It's taken him from Afghanistan, where he had to move away for safety at 16, to four different refugee camps in Turkey (2013 to 2016) to the United States – in Portland for several years – and now most recently, Fort Lauderdale.

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During his time in Turkey, Karimi won 15 medals including two Turkish national championships. But he didn't compete internationally before coming stateside in 2015. Mike Ives, a retired teacher and former wrestling coach in Portland, offered to house him. "He's my American father," Karimi said. "He helped make America feel like home for me."

"I've sacrificed so much to get here. All for swimming. This didn't happen by magic," Karimi said. "It took me nine years in so many different cities and countries, and I had to start from ground zero when I came to (the United States). But I was born as a competitor, as a fighter."

That fighter mentality had to be remodeled, however. It wasn't until his father died in 2019 that Karimi discovered his true passion for swimming. For a brief period, he was lost and stepped away from the sport.

"My father made a lot of tough decisions in my life," Karimi said. "He never had the belief that I could be special. He wanted me to be married at 15 so I could have a wife to take care of me. It was a very old mindset. So, I always wanted to prove my father wrong. At the same time, I loved him so much. When he died, it made me very emotional and before that I'd hide all emotion so I could always be in beast mode. But for a while I lost that (drive) without him here anymore. I said, 'If he can't see me be a champion, I quit.'

Abbas Karimi of the Refugee Para Team competes in the Men's 50m Backstroke during day 2 of the 2021 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center on June 18, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Abbas Karimi of the Refugee Para Team competes in the Men's 50m Backstroke during day 2 of the 2021 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center on June 18, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

"Then I thought about what my father would say to me and he'd say, 'Son, keep swimming.' He saw me prove I am worthy to be something else for the world. Before he died, when people would see me winning medals, they'd congratulate him telling him his son is a prize. I get to put his name on top of the world. And swimming is my legacy and my path. It's not about my father, it's about myself. Now I can honor him and keep his name alive through my success. I know I can make him proud."

Karimi moved to Florida to train for the Games during COVID-19 and he's been paired with coach Marty Hendrick, who has focused on one missing ingredient: having fun. Upon meeting Karimi, Hendrick believed that the best approach to shaving off seconds while Karimi trains for six days a week, often twice a day, was to enjoy the process more.

"My first impression of him, outside of being incredibly talented, was that he's an angry kid who doesn't smile very often," Hendrick said. "I told him, 'Here's the plan: we're going to enjoy the journey.' He's an elite swimmer and trains as hard as I've seen. He can be the first refugee on the podium. But I told him it has to be about the process because that way we can achieve small goals instead of (overly) focusing on the big goal."

In the end, Karimi noted how he wanted to be remembered, and his answer is typical of the passionate and tough swimmer.

"I've failed more times than I've won in my life," Karimi said. "But you always have to come back stronger, no matter how hard life is. That's how I want people to remember me."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Paralympic swimmer could be first refugee medalist at Tokyo Games