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God took my arms but he gave me this gift

Who: Abbas Karimi

City: Fort Lauderdale

Quote: “Every time I swim I am reborn”

Abas Karimi
PH: Courtesy Anita Mitchell

“Being born without arms never held me back because I’ve learned to use my feet for everything. As a kid, this burden made me angry but swimming would soothe me. In Kabul, I learned to swim in rivers, then in a pool and I got really good at it. I knew, however, that if I really wanted to accomplish anything with my swimming, I would have to leave Afghanistan.

Because of my disability, my family wanted me to get married so that someone could take care of me. I wasn't having it. I had magical things to do. I was driven from within and knew that I could take care of myself.

So at age 16, I left war-torn Afghanistan, walked through Iran then was smuggled into Turkey where I lived for four years. The United Nations Refugee Program plucked me out of the refugee camp because of my swimming and brought me to Portland, Oregon to train for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

I arrived in the United States after participating four times in a swimming world series and twice in world championships. I have six international medals and 25 medals from national events. Now I had a great situation to continue training.

For the Tokyo Paralympic Games, my plans were to swim the 50 meter butterfly, 50 meter backstroke and both the 50 and 100 meter freestyle. I already knew that my competition was going to be a Chinese guy and a Ukranian guy. I want to drop a few seconds off my times before the games eventually happen. I have applied to become an American citizen so if the games are delayed again because of the pandemic, there is more of a chance I will be competing as an American.

When the pandemic forced the pools in Oregon to close, my coach there told me about Marty Hendrick and the Swim Fort Lauderdale Masters Swim Team (SFTL), a tightly knit swim group with over 200 members.

Marty has become more than my swim coach, he is also my life coach. I also have coaches Ryan Rosenbaum, Mike Averett and Blake Woodrow helping me too. They shoot video of me from all directions and each brings his own coaching gifts. I am a religious guy and it’s a blessing to have them all in my life.

This is what my training is like: I constantly stretch to maintain my flexibility. I swim six days a week, 2.5k per practice and during two days a week I do a double practice. I am also a runner and I do dryland workouts all the time that include ab crunches. People don’t realize that swimming the butterfly has more to do with the abs than with arms.

Adjusting to my new life here was easier for me because I knew how to speak English. It was the only subject in school I cared about. Besides that, swimmers already have an instant bond with each other no matter where we live. We share a lot of the same nuances; how we de-fog our goggles, what we eat, the amount we sleep, how we prepare for competition, how we train and even the way we discreetly change out of our wet swimsuits.

I miss my family in Afghanistan and my life growing up but I am comforted knowing that my parents and family love me, and that my father was proud of me before he passed. I talk to my family on the phone every morning.

SFTL Coach Marty Hendrick says this about Abbas, ‘Everyone has challenges. Ours are just packaged differently. No one’s life is perfect. His challenge is just very obvious. And life goes on. He is making the most of it. He is the definition of a true champion. The lesson I have learned from him is that I can be a lot better person than I thought I was.’

God took my arms but he gave me skill and strength in my legs and feet. He gave me a talent, a passion and perseverance.

I know that my story inspires.”


“I am Anita Mitchell and I collect people stories, much the same way people collect shoes or baseball cards or Lladro porcelain figurines. During my 26 years at WSVN7, I had the front-row seat to people stories and it was there I learned about the extraordinariness of the ordinary.


Since retiring from television news, I serve on the Board of Directors of Different Brains, a charitable foundation that supports neurodiverse adults.  I also serve on the Board of Directors of the Broward County Sports Hall of Fame. We honor local residents who have set unique standards of excellence through sports. 

Since 2004, I have swum competitively with our local Swim Fort Lauderdale Masters Swim Team (SFTL).

I don’t really know how the writing and the swimming and the neurodiverse and honoring local sports figures are connected but I know in my heart that they are.


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