Abbas Karimi’s swimming journey looks very different from that of a typical elite athlete. Born without arms, Abbas fled his home country of Afghanistan at 16 and found a new home in the United States that helped him become one of the world’s top Para swimmers
His story is about following your dreams, overcoming adversity and making an impact. MySwimPro CEO Fares Ksebati sat down with Abbas to learn more about his love for swimming and how he’s making his mark on the sport.
Growing Up & Finding Swimming
Abbas was born without arms, but that didn’t stop him from trying different sports. During his childhood in Kabul, Afghanistan, he tried martial arts, but ultimately chose swimming. He was looking for a way to break free from the judgment he faced for his disability, and swimming did just that.
And it turned out that he was pretty good! As he started moving up the ranks in his local swimming community, Abbas got the feeling that swimming could save his life.
At the age of 16, Abbas chose to leave Afghanistan alone. He traveled through Iran’s Zagros mountains and lived in four different refugee camps in Turkey before making his way to the United States.
In 2016 he moved to Portland, Oregon. And in 2019, he settled in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he still lives today.
He became an American citizen in 2022. And when he thinks back to his first few months in the United States, Abbas says it felt like starting from level zero, but swimming was always there for him.
Training & Competing
Just one year after moving to the US, Abbas made a splash in the swimming world. At the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City, Abbas won silver in the S5 50-meter butterfly, becoming the first ever refugee to win a medal at the World Para Swimming Championships.
Training-wise, Abbas has been swimming Swim Fort Lauderdale Masters in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for the last three years. He loves the camaraderie, competitive energy and family atmosphere of the team.
To his coaches, Marty Hendrick and Blake Woodrow, Abbas is a hard worker, a good teammate and a source of inspiration for many of his fellow swimmers.
“I can’t imagine leaving home by myself at 16 to go to a country where I didn’t know the language, going through the mountains and taking a journey you only read about or see in movies,” Marty says.
Ultimately, though, Abbas is just like all the other athletes on his team.
“He’s just another elite athlete who loves swimming and is dedicated to the sport. And that really makes you love this sport,” said Marty.
Abbas’s commitment to his goals elevates everyone around him.
“Abbas is willing to do whatever needs to be done to get the goal for him which is a gold medal. He wants to win at the Paralympics,” Blake says.
2020 Tokyo Paralympics
After some stellar performances from 2017 to 2019, Abbas was ready to compete in the Paralympics in Tokyo. At the 2021 Games, he finished eighth overall in the S5 50-meter butterfly. He also competed in the S5 50-meter backstroke.
With the Paralympics checked off his bucket list, what was next for Abbas? More competition.
In 2021, he won the 200-meter backstroke and 200-meter butterfly events at the US Masters Swimming Long Course National Championships. And in 2022, he won the 50-meter butterfly at the Indianapolis World Series meet.
Next, Abbas has his sights set on the 2023 World Para Swimming Championships in Manchester. And we’ll all be watching!
Living Without Arms
Abbas may have no arms, but that doesn’t mean he lives a limited life. He just does things with his feet! He eats, dresses, and even drives with his feet.
Abbas thinks there’s magic in his unique disability. “When god takes something from you, he will give something else to you, but you have to work so hard to find it,” he said.
And Abbas was committed to uncovering what his true purpose was.
Making an Impact
Without swimming, Abbas says he doesn’t know where he’d be today.
“Since I started swimming, I realized that my life meant something,” he said. “Before that I was sort of a lost kid who didn’t know what was going to happen to him.”
Beyond his personal goals for competition, Abbas is also dedicated to using his platform to make the world – and swimming – a better and more inclusive place.
“Every medal that I win is not just for me, it’s for lots of people, it’s for my family, for my legacy, for my father,” he says.
Reflecting on how far he’s come since leaving Afghanistan 10 years ago, Abbas said that he still misses his family every day. “Every moment, every day, every month, every year, it was so hard to be away from my family…from the people that I love. But I had to keep going to make it to the top.”
Abbas Karimi is living proof that sports can change your life. Whoever you are, and wherever you come from, you can achieve anything you set your mind to. Find your community, work hard, and put good energy into the world, and you’ll be rewarded.
If you were inspired by Abbas’s story, follow his journey on Instagram at @abbaskarimiswim. And if you’re ready to start your own swimming journey, download the MySwimPro app to get your own, personalized Training Plan.