The Swim Fort Lauderdale member's escape from Afghanistan inspires on the world stage
What was your biggest challenge at 16? Getting a driver’s license? Acing a geometry quiz? Asking your crush out on a date? Making the varsity swim team?
For Abbas Karimi, it was fleeing war and terrorism in his home country of Afghanistan.
In 2013, when Karimi was 16, his older brother took him to Iran and connected him with a group headed for Turkey. Abbas and a few dozen other refugees risked their lives and were smuggled into Turkey by way of hiking, stowing away in random cars, and camping in the mountains over three days and three nights.
“I was so hungry and cold, I felt like I was dying,” Karimi says. “At the time, I regretted it, but there was no going back. I had to keep pushing forward.”
Fast forward eight years to the summer of 2021. Karimi was one of six athletes to compete for the Refugee Paralympic Team at the Tokyo Games. He now has more than 11,000 followers on Instagram, including 10-time Olympic medalist Katie Ledecky. He led the parade of nations into the stadium at the Paralympics’ opening ceremony as one of two flag bearers for the refugee team.
And, as if escaping your home, leaving your family, walking for days in the mountains with little to no food or water in search of safety wasn’t treacherous and scary enough, and as if making it to and competing in a Paralympics doesn’t come with enough pressure, Karimi has overcome all of it despite being born without arms.
Karimi’s life growing up was a struggle. He was a kid trying to do everything other kids did, such as play marbles and swim in the river. He skipped class and wasn’t interested in going to school because he was bullied, which perpetuated a deep anger inside him. Mean kids called him “armless” and “crippled,” and he retaliated through fighting. When he was 12, Karimi started taking martial arts classes so he could defend himself. Bruce Lee became his idol.
“That was my childhood,” says Karimi, now 25. “And that’s how it was until I became a swimmer.”
Karimi’s father wanted him to get married at age 15 and start a family. He wanted him to become a leader in the mosque. Karimi respected his father but didn’t want that future. Sports were his life, and he always felt good in the water. It was a place where he could feel calm and peaceful. Swimming, he told himself, was the path he needed to follow.
His swimming career started simply enough. He’d go with his friends to the river and jump in with all his clothes on. That eventually developed into him jumping in a pool with a life jacket. Once Karimi realized he wouldn't drown, he became more comfortable trying out different strokes. One day Karimi asked a lifeguard if he thought he could be a swimmer.
“And he said, ‘There are people in the world without arms or legs, so why not you?’” Karimi says. “He gave me that motivation.”
Karimi started training with a local coach in Kabul, Qasim Hamidi, who told him he could become a champion. He swam four to five days a week and couldn’t get enough of the sport. Although leaving Afghanistan was necessary to escape war and terrorism, one of the toughest parts, Karimi says, was not knowing when he would be able to swim again.
“Not being able to swim, I felt like I wasn’t living my life,” Karimi says. “Swimming became my whole life. Swimming saved my life. Every time I don’t swim, I feel guilty.”
Once Karimi arrived in Turkey, he hopped between four refugee camps over the course of four years. He was so determined to swim that he didn’t mind taking a bus— sometimes twice a day, an hour each way—to a pool so he could train for races. The refugee camps provided him with a coach and a caretaker to accompany him.
In Afghanistan, Karimi mostly swam freestyle and breaststroke. But his coaches in Turkey taught him how to dolphin kick so he could swim butterfly, which has become his best stroke.
Living in refugee camps didn’t deter Karimi from his big dreams of competing internationally. He began posting videos of himself on Facebook and YouTube, hoping it would catch the right person’s eye. And it did.
Impressed by Karimi’s dedication to his sport and lofty goals, as well as feeling the urge to help athletes after a career spent coaching high school football and wrestling, Mike Ives sent Karimi a long message introducing himself and saying he wanted to help.
“At first, I thought he was crazy,” Karimi says. “But then I realized he really cares about me and wants to do something.”
After Skype calls over a couple years—which helped improve Karimi’s English—sending Karimi money to buy clothes, and a letter-writing campaign to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ives was finally able to help Karimi resettle in 2016.
“Somehow,” Karimi says, “we made it.”
Karimi moved in with Ives, who passed away in January 2022, in Portland, Oregon. Ives taught him how to drive and helped find a U.S. Masters Swimming workout group, the Oregon Reign Masters. The two quickly developed a father-son relationship—Karimi calls him “my American father.” Ives was protective, supportive, encouraging, and traveled all over the world with Karimi for swim meets, including the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City, where he competed for the refugee team and won a silver medal in the S5 50-meter butterfly. (Para-athletic butterflyers with physical disabilities are classified by their functional disability, ranging from S1, the most impaired, to S10, the least impaired.) They also went to Geneva, Switzerland, so Karimi could participate in a conference for UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency.
“I admired his dedication to his sport and his goals and felt the need to help him achieve it,” Ives said. “I wouldn’t trade [the experience] for anything.”
Pools shut down almost everywhere, including in Portland, when the pandemic hit in 2020. Still hoping to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympic Games, Karimi couldn’t train for four months. He went running and trained on dry land, but it wasn’t the same. Through the USMS community, he connected with Marty Hendrick, coach of Swim Fort Lauderdale. Although it was hard to say goodbye to Ives, Karimi left Portland in August 2020 for Fort Lauderdale.
Before deciding to join Swim Fort Lauderdale, Karimi interviewed Hendrick to make sure they aligned about Karimi’s goal. They chatted by video and connected immediately. Karimi explained he was looking for a coach who could travel with him and help him win. He had placed sixth in his second world championship and wanted to drop his time.
Hendrick embraced Karimi, and they became buddies. At the pool, Hendrick is coach, but at home, he’s Karimi’s caregiver and friend, a common practice for athletes who show promise and move to pursue their goals in cities where they don’t know many people. Hendrick and Karimi especially enjoy watching Netflix and Marvel movies together. Karimi draws inspiration from Thor, Hulk, and Black Panther.
Though he had never coached an athlete without arms before, Hendrick felt confident he could properly train Karimi for a few reasons. One, as is common with Masters coaches, he has swimmers on his team who have been pregnant or undergone hip replacements and shoulder surgeries, so he knows how to adapt workouts for swimmers with mobility impairments. And two, Karimi’s motivation and determination were high.
“He’s elite,” Hendrick says. “He has a mentality that I don’t know if you can learn it. It's confidence. Some call it cockiness because he’s very firm in his beliefs and goals. He walks the walk, talks the talk. When he works out, it's amazing how hard he works. He does not complain.”
Hendrick helped Karimi qualify for the Paralympics, for which Karimi was physically and mentally prepared, but then the Taliban took over Afghanistan as the U.S. pulled back its military presence. Karimi’s family tried to evacuate from Kabul, along with thousands of others, but the Taliban closed the airport. His family, who also just missed bombs set off by ISIS that killed scores of innocent people, is safe albeit displaced in Pakistan. He’s working to get them to the U.S.
Karimi struggled to focus in Tokyo. He struggled to process what was happening in his home country, which affected his mental health. He tried to stay composed and just swim, but he couldn’t.
“All of my motivation comes from the Afghan people,” Karimi says. “The people who bullied me and called me armless. And the people who believed I would become a champion.
“The day I left for Tokyo, I was crying. I’m [Afghanistan’s] champion and I’ve won a lot of medals and gone to championships and made them smile, but right then, I couldn’t do anything to save them. I felt guilty as their athlete. When I got on the airplane, I told myself I’m going to focus on the competition and I can only control myself and I can’t control Afghanistan’s situation.”
That’s what Karimi tried to do through the Games, but at night, he couldn’t sleep.
“I called [my family] every day just to make sure they were alive,” Karimi says. “It was not easy.”
He still made the final in the 50 butterfly but finished eighth. He was the only refugee to make the finals.
“I didn’t have any excuses though,” Karimi says, even though many would agree he did.
Now Karimi is plotting his comeback for the 2024 Paris Paralympics. He felt a massive sense of guilt after Tokyo and decided to take time off from competing to address his mental health. But he says he can’t leave his legacy like this and that “this is just the start of me.”
“I have to become a Paralympic champion,” he says.
Karimi competed at the 2021 USMS Long Course National Championship, winning national titles in the 200 backstroke and 200 butterfly. One of his older brothers, Hussein, was able to come and spend time with him, which significantly helped him mentally. The two had not seen each other since 2013, and it was the first time Hussein, who had resettled in Australia, had ever watched his brother swim in person.
“I’m proud of him,” Hussein says. “I want to give him courage. Whatever he needs, I’m ready to help him as a friend and brother. That’s my responsibility.”
Karimi also hopes to help other displaced refugee athletes. As a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, he speaks at conferences and tells the story of his journey with the hope that it inspires others around the world to set goals and have every opportunity he has had.
His message is this:
“Before swimming I was so scared and worried about what would happen to my life. Who would take care of me when I get older? Who’s going to be with me when my parents die? I felt unsafe and didn't know what kind of talent I had and that I could be something.
“When swimming came into my life, it became a shield. I've been through all of these horrible events. That's what motivates me because I was nothing and lots of people didn't believe in me. My father wanted me to be something else. I wanted to prove myself and show that I am something. I wanted to prove to everybody that I'm worthy and I can be something.
“I don’t want to be in need. I want to be 100% independent so that's what motivates me to keep seeing goals and going after them.”
That’s Karimi’s hope for himself and for every refugee he hopes to inspire.
- Human Interest