Abbas Karimi Turns Disability Into Strength


Leaving war-torn Afghanistan and hiking over countless mountains to reach refugee camps in Turkey was one of the easier challenges Abbas Karimi has conquered in his life. Born without arms in Afghanistan, Karimi faced unfathomable obstacles—from mental anguish, torment from schoolyard bullies and injuries from falls to learning everyday tasks with his feet. Karimi struggled to find his place to fit in and overcome a challenge few people can relate to. 

“All these years, I kept thinking, I’m a kid without arms, but what can I be other than just a kid with no arms,” he says. “I wanted to make my family proud and show them what I’m capable of, be part of society, and have positive effects.” 

Karimi found his answer when he began swimming in the rivers close to his house in Kabul. It was there that he began to find peace and solace, a place where he could release the frustrations built up over years of bullying and struggles.

“There were a lot of dark moments I went through as a child,” he says. “I realized that water was the only thing that could really calm me down and relax. It’s not the end of the world, and it’s okay if you don’t have arms. I believe swimming saved my life and is keeping me alive. I had no other purpose in life.”

After spending countless hours honing his swimming ability in the rivers, Karimi took his talents to his brother’s pool, and his dedication to his craft soon led him to compete nationally in Afghanistan. As his innate talent grew, Karimi won his first gold medal in the country, and his life began to transform. 

“I always had to be very strong in everything and defend myself,” he says. “There’s been lots of suffering and lots of pain, but I never surrendered myself to life. I followed the swimming path, kept working hard, and ended up here. Life is not perfect and is full of risks, and this world will not show you mercy, but at the end of the day, whatever people go through, I say it’s worth it to keep working hard for your dreams and goals. If you don’t save yourself, no one will.”

Despite making his family proud with his swimming accomplishments, the conflict in Afghanistan took a toll on Karimi, who didn’t see much of a future in one of the poorest countries on Earth. He fled on foot and was able to trek through Iran and was smuggled into Turkey at the age of 16, where he stayed in refugee camps for four years. As word of his extraordinary swimming capabilities spread, the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) relocated Karimi from the refugee camp to Portland, Oregon, where he began intensive training for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. He intended to compete in the 50-meter butterfly, 50-meter backstroke, and the 50- and 100-meter freestyle, but COVID forced the pools to close and cancel the games.

While undoubtedly disappointed, fate would intervene when he was contacted by Marty Hendrick and the Swim Fort Lauderdale Masters Swim Team, a local swim group with over 200 members. He was soon invited to relocate to Fort Lauderdale and has been training at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Center ever since. 

Abbas Karimi Swimmer
Marty Hendrick, Abbas Karimi, and Zachary McCannis

Trading in the rivers of Kabul, Afghanistan for the multimillion-dollar Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Center has been one of the many positives Karimi has experienced since becoming a Fort Lauderdale resident. His love for water has only grown here. After swimming practice, the 27-year-old regularly walks to the beach to connect with the resource that gives him life in more ways than one.

“I’m a water person,” Abbas Karimi says. “Water calms me down, and the best thing I love about the city is that it’s surrounded by water. The beach is so close, and I love everything about it here. I’m living in heaven; it’s a paradise for me.” 

After hearing of his profound mental and physical resilience, Visit Lauderdale, the destination marketing organization for Greater Fort Lauderdale, formed a new partnership with the Paralympic hopeful to serve as its latest ambassador.

“It’s one of the biggest things to happen to me in my swimming career,” Karimi says. “I never had that kind of partnership. After 12 years and lots of hard work, it’s happening. Living in Fort Lauderdale, it’s growing on me and being selected by the Visit Lauderdale team is a big honor for me and I will work so hard to make them proud and be the best ambassador and a good representative of the city.”

Abbas Karimi Visit Lauderdale

As an accessibility ambassador for Visit Lauderdale, Karimi will visit various places throughout Greater Fort Lauderdale and showcase their accessibility through various marketing campaigns.

“Inclusivity is an important part of our mission at Visit Lauderdale,” says Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of Visit Lauderdale. “We pride ourselves in making everyone feel welcomed with open arms in our destination. Our ambassador campaign with Abbas will hopefully inspire others to dream big and work hard towards their goals. Abbas will also help us show locals and visitors how accessible Greater Fort Lauderdale has become over the years.” 

Since his arrival in the U.S., Karimi has competed four times in the Para Swimming World Series and twice in the World Championships. He’s earned six international medals and won 25 medals from national events. In 2023, he made Team USA for the World Para Swimming Championships in Portugal. His next goal is to qualify for the Paris Paralympics in late August. He practices six days a week with a strict diet and training regimen that features 2.5 miles of swimming each practice. 

He says, “If my story can motivate someone or give a little bit of hope to someone’s heart to help them keep going, it was worth it.”

For additional information on Abbas Karimi and his swimming career, visit www.abbas-karimi.com. To learn about Visit Lauderdale’s accessibility initiatives, visit www.visitlauderdale.com/accessibility/





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