FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla .– Afghan refugee Abbas Karimi may have been born unarmed, but he sets the world of swimming on fire with his heart.
Currently, the elite, sixth-ranked para-swimmer in the world lives and trains in Fort Lauderdale.
Karimi, 24, fled his war-torn country at the age of 16, leaving his family behind in Kabul to forge a new life.
âI wanted to show the world what I’m made of, what I’m capable of,â he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Karimi has designed backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, and butterfly swimming styles, but the butterfly is her favorite.
âThis is the hardest part,â he said. âThat’s why I chose him. It’s very difficult. I like to do difficult things. If it’s easy, I’ll leave it to someone else.
In sports, Karimi is known for his discipline, focus and kindness, his trainer Marty Hendrick said. “He has this aura”
“They’re just good people,” said Hendrick, the Masters head coach for the Fort Lauderdale Swim program. âFor my father, it was the highest form of compliment. And that’s what I would say about him. People are smiling around him. And it’s not sympathy. He has that aura. People are drawn to him.
This includes Debbie Rosenbaum, a paralegal and lifeguard who has taken Karimi under her wing, treating him like a son.
âShe told me that she was going to adopt me as her son,â Karimi said. âAnd I said, ‘OK, mom’. She was really like a mom. She is always here for me. I am very lucky to be surrounded by lovely people who support me. I love her so much. And she loves me.
Rosenbaum, who has a son and a daughter, calls Karimi his other son.
âThis is the love of my life,â she said. âHe is truly an inspiration to everyone. He is wise beyond his years.
Karimi, who turned 25 on January 1, lost her father two years ago. It was heartbreaking, but Karimi says his Muslim faith and his dream of a better life helped him keep going.
Those who know him say he likes to anticipate the next challenge, the next goal, the next swim. Quiet in the water
It was in the water that Karimi found solace from the bullies of his childhood who made fun of him for being born without arms.
âMy father said, ‘God has taken your arms. But he put all the talent in your feet, your mind, and your heart. And you will find your way. Now I understand what he meant with those words. What I have become was a gift from God. So I could do something on my own and motivate others too.
He made his first jump in a river when he was 6 or 7, he says. Then, at age 13, he started swimming in a community pool his brother helped build, using a life jacket to stay afloat. A lifeguard took note of his natural talent and taught him the breaststroke. From there he fell in love with the sport.
These days, Karimi has the mindset of an elite athlete, her coach says.
He sticks to a strict schedule that makes him get up before dawn and go to bed at 8:30 p.m.
He trains four days a week at the gym and six days a week at the pool, sometimes twice a day. This means getting up at 2:30 a.m. to swallow some oatmeal, then going back to bed until 5 a.m. Then, let’s go for the practice of swimming from 6:45 am.
Karimi has won eight international medals so far, including silver at the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City.
He competed in the 2020 Paralympic Games, which were held in Tokyo in 2021. A member of the Paralympic Refugee Team of the International Paralympic Committee, he competed in the 50-meter butterfly S5 event, where he qualified for the final and finished eighth overall – not as well as he expected.
As he prepared for the Tokyo Paralympic Games, Kabul fell to the Taliban.
âThat’s when his family became a refugee. Kabul fell and his whole family had to flee, âsaid Hendrick. âMother, siblings, nieces and nephews. They were trying to escape while we were in Tokyo. It crushed him. It was the only time I saw him sweat. There was nothing he could do. “
Flight from Afghanistan
Karimi fled Afghanistan flying to Iran in 2013, where he spent a week before embarking on a dangerous trek in Turkey, joining a group smuggled across the border.
âIt took three days and three nights,â Karimi said. âSome parts were walking and some were driving. It was scary. I was 16 years old. But I wanted a new life. I took a very high risk. I could have been killed or I could have died. But thank goodness I crossed this path and entered Turkey. It was dangerous, but it was the price I was prepared to take. Do it or don’t.
Karimi spent four years in Turkish refugee camps. Then, with the help of the United Nations and former wrestling coach Mike Ives, he moved to Portland in 2016.
âI came here thanks to the United Nations refugee program,â Karimi said. âI was one of the lucky ones. My American dad Mike Ives contacted me and wanted to help me get to the United States. He emailed the United Nations for two years. A move to Fort Lauderdale
When the pandemic struck in March 2020, Karimi struggled to find a place to train. So in August, amid pandemic lockdowns, he moved to Fort Lauderdale to train with Hendrick.
âI needed a pool,â Karimi said. âOne of my trainers contacted Marty. I did not choose Fort Lauderdale. Fort Lauderdale chose me.
Karimi found a coach in Hendrick but also a father figure who made room for him in his own home. But at the pool, Hendrick wears only the coach cap.
âI define Abbas as an elite swimmer,â said Hendrick. âAnd elite swimmers have a much different mindset and motivation than your standard athlete. But for him, I think it has a lot to do with his disability and the people who expect him to be unable to do. He was pressured into becoming independent, which I believe was his main motivation for leaving Afghanistan. There was no future.
Karimi’s family now lives in Pakistan. He has five brothers and four sisters. Her younger brother lives in Turkey as a refugee.
âI am active on Instagram and Facebook and I talk to my family every day through Messenger or WhatsApp,â he said. âI miss them so much. I’ve been away from them for almost 10 years. I do my best to make them proud.
Karimi says he hopes to one day bring his mother to the United States. He also hopes to get his citizenship by June so he can swim for the U.S. team.
A book is also in preparation.
“The United Nations put him in touch with agents,” said Hendrick.
For a world lacking inspirational stories that give hope, Karimi’s life course feels natural.
This is one of the reasons Karimi became a young United Nations Ambassador, helping to show the 82.5 million refugees around the world how they too can acclimate to a strange new home.
Karimi is now on his way to becoming a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations in April or May, her coach said.
“The UN considers him to be an athlete who has become acclimatized to the sport,” said Hendrick. âThe UN does not consider him an armless refugee. By training with him, you never see a handicap. You see an athlete who wants to go faster and faster.
But there is always a heart behind what he does, explains Karimi’s coach.
And in 2024, there are the Paralympic Games in Paris.
âI intend to compete,â says Karimi. âBut there are a lot of competitions between now and then. I have to keep competing to get better and better. This is how it works in sport.