Freedom to Swim: Afghan Refugee Competes in Tokyo Paralympics

TOKYO — The first time Abbas Karimi jumped right into a pool, the water introduced contemporary reduction from the warmth of Kabul.

For Mr. Karimi, 24, who was born with out arms, the pool additionally conferred a way of freedom and safety. As he superior rapidly from flailing in a life jacket to successful races, he found a spot the place he may excel, and transcend the bullying he skilled.

Swimming additionally propelled Mr. Karimi, who’s one among six athletes competing for the Refugee Paralympic Team in Tokyo, to flee Afghanistan when he was 16. After successful a nationwide championship in his homeland, he yearned to practice for worldwide competitors with out the every day fears of struggle and terrorism.

“I needed to be somewhere I could be safe and keep training and be a Paralympic champion,” he mentioned in an interview earlier this month on Zoom. “When I left Afghanistan, that was with me, that idea of what I’m going to be.”

Eight years after Mr. Karimi escaped Afghanistan, he led the parade of countries into the stadium on the Paralympics’ opening ceremony on Tuesday night time as one among two flag bearers for the refugee crew.

Because the chaos surrounding the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan prevented the nation’s Paralympic delegation from flying to Tokyo, Mr. Karimi will be the solely Afghan athlete to compete on the Games. Two Afghan Paralympians had been a part of a gaggle of greater than 50 athletes who had been evacuated from Kabul and traveled to Australia this week, however organizers haven’t mentioned whether or not they are going to compete in Tokyo.

Mr. Karimi is one among thousands and thousands who fled the violence in Afghanistan lengthy earlier than the present disaster. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a complete of two.2 million registered Afghan refugees are in Iran and Pakistan alone.

In 2013, one among Mr. Karimi’s older brothers took him to Iran and related him with a gaggle that was touring to Turkey. Over three days and nights, they hiked or stowed in vans to go over mountains on the best way to the border.

Mr. Karimi bearing a flag through the opening ceremony on Tuesday.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Once in Turkey, Mr. Karimi moved between 4 completely different refugee camps, practically one per yr. He was decided to hold swimming, generally taking a bus twice a day, an hour every means, to a pool the place he may practice.

In Afghanistan, he had began swimming freestyle and breaststroke occasions, however his coaches in Turkey persuaded him to be taught the dolphin kick in order that he may swim the butterfly.

“It is one of the hardest strokes in swimming,” he mentioned. “But the only way that I could swim faster and become a champion was butterfly.”

With worldwide competitors the purpose, Mr. Karimi had begun posting on Facebook to search assist to attain the Paralympics. Not lengthy after he arrived in Turkey, he related with Mike Ives, a retired wrestling and soccer coach in Portland, Ore., who finally mounted a letter-writing marketing campaign that helped Mr. Karimi resettle as a refugee in the United States in 2016.

Mr. Karimi lived with Mr. Ives in Portland and joined a U.S. Masters Swimming crew, the Oregon Reign Masters. Dennis Baker, the top coach, immediately acknowledged Mr. Karimi’s expertise, drive and self-reliance, marveling at how nimbly he obtained out of the pool with out help. When Mr. Karimi competed in his first Oregon state masters championship, “he scored a ton of points for us,” Mr. Baker mentioned.

In 2017, Mr. Karimi competed in the para swimming world championships in Mexico City for the refugee crew and received a silver medal in the 50-meter butterfly. He and Mr. Ives flew straight to Geneva, the place Mr. Karimi participated in a convention convened by the U.N. refugee company’s Global Refugee Youth Consultations.

Mr. Ives taught Mr. Karimi to drive; he handed his license take a look at on his third strive. And Mr. Karimi made buddies with different Afghan refugees in Portland. They would cheer him on at practices and meets and watch motion motion pictures with him. (Bruce Lee is an idol.)

Mr. Karimi after apply on Tuesday.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

But swimming and his objectives had been by no means removed from his thoughts. “He likes people who talk about their dreams,” mentioned Najibullah Tajik, 20. “If you talk about something else that is just easy, he doesn’t like that. He wants action.”

At the 2019 world championships in London, Mr. Karimi positioned sixth in the 50-meter butterfly. It was a troublesome yr for him, as his father died in Kabul shortly after the meet. Mr. Karimi mentioned his father had been his earliest fan, telling him, “‘You don’t have arms, but you became a swimmer and you are something now.’”

When the pandemic hit final yr, the pool the place the Reign Masters practiced shut down. Mr. Karimi couldn’t get in the water for practically 4 months. Eager to hold coaching, he joined the crew’s assistant coach, Allen J. Larson, to seek for open swimming pools. At first, the one one they might discover was an hour’s drive away and had restricted hours.

During a 10-day journey to Folsom, Calif., the place they swam day by day, Mr. Larson realized from his sister, who can also be a swimmer, a couple of coach in Florida, the place swimming pools remained open. A few emails later, Mr. Karimi had an invite to transfer to Fort Lauderdale to reside and practice with one other masters coach, Marty Hendrick.

In Fort Lauderdale, Mr. Hendrick’s crew of coaches helped Mr. Karimi modify his physique place to velocity up his dives off the beginning block, in addition to to refine his dolphin kick in order that he may use it not just for the butterfly, but additionally for the backstroke. “What we discovered is Abbas’s dolphin kick is significantly faster than his two-leg flutter kick,” Mr. Hendrick mentioned. “So his backstroke has been greatly improved.”

After apply, Mr. Hendrick bans swim discuss of greater than 10 minutes, and the pair watch Marvel motion pictures collectively, with Mr. Hendrick often urgent pause to outline a phrase in English for Mr. Karimi.

“I can picture him in a Marvel movie,” Mr. Hendrick mentioned. “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.”

After a apply in Tokyo earlier this week, Mr. Hendrick mentioned he wished Mr. Karimi not simply to take into consideration his medal hopes, but additionally to benefit from the expertise.

“He’s already a champion,” Mr. Hendrick mentioned. “There are not enough awards for what he’s done, but I wanted him to enjoy this, have fun with it.”

The backdrop of stories from Afghanistan is inevitably “very, very hard,” Mr. Karimi mentioned. Mr. Ives can also be working to assist convey one among Mr. Karimi’s brothers, Asghar, to the United States from a refugee camp in Turkey.

One of Mr. Karimi’s Portland buddies, Saifullah Tajik, 21, Najibullah’s brother, mentioned he advised Mr. Karimi that he shouldn’t deal with what’s occurring in his homeland whereas competing in Tokyo.

“You have been working hard for as long as I’ve known you, and there are so many things happening in Afghanistan,” Mr. Tajik mentioned he advised his buddy. “Just keep your mind clear and focused on your approach.”

Mr. Karimi put it merely on Instagram. In a put up exhibiting him treading water and grinning in the pool on the Tokyo Aquatics Center, the caption learn: “Dream came True.”