As a member of the Refugee Para Team at the time, Abbas Karimi competes in the men's 50-meter backstroke during day two of the 2021 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials.

Road to Paris: Abbas Karimi on How Swimming Saved his Life

From Afghanistan to Fort Lauderdale, the para swimmer is ready to butterfly his way to Paris 2024

As a member of the Refugee Para Team at the time, Abbas Karimi competes in the men's 50-meter backstroke during day two of the 2021 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Words by Samantha Pak

Road to Paris: The 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Paris are less than a year away, and athletes around the world are gearing up to go for the gold—including AA+PI athletes throughout the United States. Normally we’re all about shirking the unrealistic expectations put on our community to excel, but as we gear up for next year’s summer games, we are here to celebrate the outstanding AA+PI athletes getting ready to compete for their country. Read on to learn more about their road to Paris!

Growing up in Afghanistan, Abbas Karimi was a very active kid. He played all sorts of sports, but after his first time in his brother’s swimming pool, it was clear he’d found his calling.

As a para swimmer who was born without arms, Karimi has won national titles in his home country, as well as in Turkey, where he lived for four years after fleeing Afghanistan at the age of 16. His prowess in the pool even caught the attention of the Turkish government. “The Turkish government and the Turkish president, they offered me Turkish citizenship so I can represent Turkey,” he said. But Karimi turned them down because he had his sights set on coming to the United States—which he did seven years ago, as a refugee.

After resettling and living in Portland, Oregon for four years, the 26-year-old moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida almost three years ago, at the beginning of the pandemic—it was the one place where he found an open pool so he could continue his training. In 2021, he competed in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic games as one of six members of the Refugee Paralympic Team, also serving as one of the team’s flag bearers during the opening ceremony.

For the 2021 Paralympics Opening Ceremony, para swimmer Abbas Karimi was of the flag bearers for the Refugee Paralympic Team, alongside Alia Issa (athletics).

Marcus Brandt/picture alliance

Karimi is currently focused on qualifying for the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris, which will run two and a half weeks after the Olympics. While he previously swam for the team representing refugees and displaced people from around the world, now as a newly minted U.S. citizen, Karimi is swimming for the opportunity to represent Team USA—not an easy feat, but he’s up for the challenge. “I realize that being on the U.S. para swimming team, it’s not easy to be selected,” he says. “So I have to be better. I have to be faster than I was in my refugee days. I have to take it more seriously. This time I have no excuses that I didn't have the (training) environment, because in the past 10 years, being a refugee, I came from nothing. But now I do have the environment.”

I recently spoke with Karimi about his journey from Afghanistan to where he is now, his road to Paris, and how swimming gave him a chance at a new life in the United States.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Samantha Pak: You are originally from Afghanistan. When did you come to the U.S. and why?
Abbas Karimi: I came at the end of 2016. I was a refugee in Turkey for four years and then I got resettled here through the refugee program through the United Nations.

SP: Before you came to the U.S., did you swim in Afghanistan?
AK: Yeah, I started swimming in Afghanistan. And then I had to leave. I went to Iran and from Iran, I went to Turkey. In Turkey I swam for four years. I competed at the national level and I won 15 medals at the national level in Turkey, and then I came to the USA.

Para swimmer Abbas Karimi has his sights on representing Team USA in the upcoming Paralympics in Paris next year.

Courtesy of Abbas Karimi

SP: How did you get started in swimming? Was it just lessons and then you really loved it?
AK: I didn't take lessons. I was a very active kid. I was trying all the sports. My first sport was martial arts, kickboxing. I did all types of martial arts sports. That's how it began. And then one of my brothers, he decided to build a swimming pool with some partners. I was able to access the pool and go every day. I’d jump in the water and it was refreshing. And then one day, I took my life jacket off and then I was able to swim. I kept practicing on my own.

One of the lifeguards was also a coach and he saw something in me. He taught me a couple techniques like breaststroke and backstroke. He said to me, “I'm going to make a great champion out of you.” After that I got a lot of encouragement from my family and all the people who were coming to the swimming pool every day.

Abbas Karimi prepares to race in the men's 50-meter butterfly final at the London 2019 World Para-swimming Allianz Championships.

Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

SP: With people with disabilities or physical challenges, many other people perceive being active and athletic as something that isn’t accessible. What would you say to people who think that?
AK: In Afghanistan, being disabled is not easy, because of the religion, society and tradition, people expect everything to be perfect. Being born without arms, my family didn't expect this. It was very, very hard for them. “Are we going to raise him or are we going to throw him away? Are we gonna give him to someone or are we going to leave him somewhere?” It was up to my father because he was the one who was putting bread and butter on the table for my family. He thought that it was a kind of test from God. My father had a big heart and he decided to raise me and take care of me.

And it was really hard being born without arms in Islamic society. There's a lot of judgment, talking, and bullying. I was born and raised, until the age of 16, in that kind of society. But I fought back. I believe that God took my arms and instead he gave all my power, my ability, to my feet, my mind, my brain and to my heart. Now, of course, they know who I am, what I became and what I did for Afghanistan, for Afghanistan’s people and for the Afghan name, through swimming. Now they understand that being disabled is not a big deal.

I believe that God took my arms and instead he gave all my power, my ability, to my feet, my mind, my brain and to my heart.

SP: You were competing at the national level in Turkey and then you came to Portland first. At that point before the pandemic, did you start competing here in the U.S.?
AK: Yes. When I came here, I started from level zero. No one knew who I was. I was just a local swimmer that swam in Turkey and in Afghanistan. I also competed in Afghanistan at the national level. I became a national champion in Afghanistan, and then I became a two-time national champion in Turkey.

When I came to the U.S. I started from local competitions until the (para swimming) World Series. Then I qualified for the world championship. My first world championship in Mexico 2017, we were representing the refugees and displaced people around the world. I competed in the butterfly and got silver. I became the first refugee or displaced person in the world who won a silver medal in the world championships.

SP: I took swimming lessons and I did learn the strokes. Butterfly is hard! It was my hardest stroke.
AK: Yes, the butterfly is the hardest stroke and it's the most beautiful one. It took me 10 years to get better at butterfly. But I see myself in the videos from underwater and say “Wow, it's so beautiful and it's so cool to be able to swim without arms, like a dolphin and butterfly.” It's very hard without arms, but I'm a butterflyer. Fifty-meter butterfly is my favorite. That's what I became a champion in.

In 2022, Abbas Karimi was part of the 200-meter medley relay for Team USA, which won and broke the world record.

Courtesy of Abbas Karimi

SP: Did you compete in Tokyo?
AK: I made it to Tokyo after a nine-year journey. It was my biggest dream to be part of the Paralympic Games. It was everything for me. I was telling myself that I don't care what's going to happen after. I just wanted to go to these Paralympic Games and make it happen and do my best. I was in the best shape of my life. I swam the 50-meter butterfly and made it to the final. I was so happy. Things happened in Tokyo, which didn't go the way I wanted and I ended up in eighth place. I got angry and the next day, in the 50-meter backstroke, I was not able to do my best performance. But it was one of the greatest, one of the biggest moments of my life, being in the Paralympic Games.

Last year, 2022, I became a U.S. citizen and got my U.S. passport before my third world championship. I made Team USA. We won in the 200 medley relay—I was the butterflyer and we broke the world record. I believe that the USA gave me a second chance and a second life to pursue my dreams.

Abbas Karimi became a U.S. citizen in 2022.

Courtesy of Abbas Karimi

SP: Paris is coming up next year. How does it feel to prepare for that and also, how does it feel now to be representing the U.S.?
AK: All these years, I've done what I wanted to be done. Now, I have to want it more, which I do, and it feels good. It feels relaxed after getting my citizenship—after lots of things happened in my life. This year, the world championship, I didn't make it. It was very sad for me because making it to the world championship was a piece of cake. But now that I'm on the U.S. para swim team, I'm not even on the main national team. I have to earn my spot. I have to drop times in the 50-meter butterfly, 50-meter freestyle, and 50-meter backstroke, and prove that I can be number one in my events. I'm going to do my best to make it happen.

If I wasn't a swimmer I wouldn't be in the USA. Swimming saved my life.

SP: How was your training when you were in Afghanistan? There's a lot going on in Afghanistan. What was it like to train in that kind of environment?
AK: In Afghanistan, I was doing a lot of activities. I was going to Muay Thai martial arts, playing soccer, running, and swimming every day. I was going to the gym. I was doing these activities four or five days a week. My training was not professional. I had to keep swimming every day on my own. After I became the Afghanistan national champion and won the gold in front of my family, I realized that I'm going to be a great champion, but not in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan was not safe anymore for me, and there was no future. My brother helped me get out, because in Afghanistan, I would end up in the streets, begging people for money—because even the most talented people in Afghanistan, they're broke. There's no jobs, especially nowadays, it's horrible.

If I wasn't a swimmer I wouldn't be in the USA. Swimming saved my life.

SP: You're getting ready for Paris. Coming here as a refugee, competing as someone with a disability, what message do you hope people get from your story?
AK: Never give up on life. Never give up on your hopes and dreams. It's good to have big dreams, but if you have small dreams, start from there. And then turn that dream to goals and goals to reality. Don't quit on yourself. Don't give up on yourself, no matter what.

Always fight your fear. Take the risk in life, because life is full of risks. Go for big things. I always dared to take the big step and do everything and whatever it takes to make it happen. That's how you can be successful in your life.

Abbas Karimi's message for people is to never give up on life or your hopes and dreams.

Courtesy of Abbas Karimi

Published on October 11, 2023

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.