Local refugee swimmer with no arms prepares for world championships
An Afghan refugee is taking Portland pools by storm, and he’s now training for the biggest swimming competition of his life.
Abbas Karimi, 20, was born without arms in war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan.
“Always bombs exploding and lots of people dying,” he recently told KATU News, during an interview by the pool at Mt. Hood Community College.
Despite ongoing instability, Karimi leads an active life, wrestling at a young age until he jumped in the pool for the very first time.
“They say you can’t swim without arms. I was scared of water,” he says.
But a watching lifeguard encouraged him to keep swimming. Karimi trained by himself day after day until one day he left his life jacket behind and caught the eye of an Afghan swim coach.
“He noticed that I can be something in swimming. He taught me a couple of techniques,” Karimi says.
He swam in the country’s first Paralympic swim meet and took home gold.
“When I’m swimming, I’m showing other people who I am,” Karimi says.
But being an adolescent with a visible disability, he knew he needed a better life and he wasn’t going to find it in the Middle East.
“They disrespect disabled people and see disabled people as hopeless. That they can’t do anything. Useless,” he says.
With the help of his older brother, Karimi made the toughest decision of his life. He left his family behind, flew to Iran and fled to Turkey illegally as a refugee. It was a dangerous journey to United Nations headquarters.
“I did it to save my life,” he says.
It was on Facebook three years later that he met Mike Ives, a former teacher and Lincoln High School wrestling coach. Ives is now Karimi’s host parent in Portland.
Now Karimi is preparing for the biggest competition yet: Para Swimming World Championships in Mexico City.
“I’m excited,” he says. “I’m nervous, but I’m training hard, and it will pay off.”
But he’s missing something important.
“I’m trying to get my younger brother, Asgar Karimi. I really want him to get over here,” he says. “He’s not in a safe place. I miss him so much.”
“A distance swimmer – that’s probably 90 percent arms and 10 percent legs. Abbas is just 100 percent legs, and that’s the beauty of it,” says Dennis Baker, Karimi’s swim coach. “He’s the number one most inspirational swimmer I’ve ever coached. He works so hard.”
Karimi qualified for the 50-meter freestyle and butterfly. The competition was set for Sept. 29 in Mexico City, but it’s been postponed because of the deadly earthquake there.