Abbas Karimi Excited To Swim Under U.S. Flag At World Championships

by Stuart Lieberman

Abbas Karimi competes in backstroke at U.S. Paralympics Swimming Team Trials last June. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)

Fourteen days after becoming a U.S. citizen, Abbas Karimi, a refugee from Afghanistan, was named to the U.S. team for this summer’s World Para Swimming Championships in Madeira, Portugal.


The last decade has been an emotional roller coaster for Karimi — from fleeing Kabul at age 16 to competing with the Paralympic Refugee Team at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 — and one that has now ended at ease with an American passport.


“Finally, I’m not a displaced person competing anymore. I was always waiting for a country to select or choose me so I could represent a country one day,” Karimi said.


Bullied as a child, and eager to flee a war zone unfit for someone with a disability, Karimi was able to leave his own country without documentation, venturing to Iran and Turkey before ending up in the United States.


“It was so hard to leave, but that was the only way to live and find out who I could be,” Karimi said. “My people rejected me, and later on they called me a champion. I proved them wrong.”


As Karimi has no arms, he propels himself out of the water in the butterfly — his best stroke — by kicking his legs together like a dolphin and comes up for air every four or five kicks rather than every kick.


Earlier this month, the 25-year-old won gold for the first time as a U.S. citizen in the 50-meter butterfly at the Para Swimming World Series in Indianapolis, qualifying for the world championships under the stars and stripes. He previously earned a silver medal at the 2017 world championships in the same event as a refugee athlete, but finished sixth at the 2019 world championships right after the death of his father.


At the Tokyo Games, Karimi led the six-person Refugee Paralympic Team into the Opening Ceremony, representing the more than 82 million people around the world — 12 million of whom have a disability — who have been forced to flee war, persecution, and human rights abuses. It was a much-needed, life-changing experience for Karimi, who two weeks previously had helplessly watched Kabul fall to the Taliban and was looking for anything to pull him out of a mental and emotional slump.


“I want to do it again because it was so much fun,” Karimi said. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I had been working so hard for nine years to make it to the Paralympic Games. It showed me what the meaning of life was; what my life means to me and what I am in this world. I gave up everything for swimming to make it to that level.” 


While Karimi lost his father, the rest of his family remains safe and watches him every time he swims in a competition from wherever they may be. He now trains six days a week at the Carter Aquatic Complex in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but soon hopes he can move to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as a member of Team USA.


Outside of the pool, Abbas is working as a high-profile supporter with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRA) for five years, illuminating how powerful sport can be in impacting lives and using his platform to advocate for positive change for people with a disability. He also recently had the opportunity to meet with the famed Afghan American author Khaled Hosseini, who wrote the novel “The Kite Runner,” and has now been inspired to start writing a book about his own journey.


“I’m hoping to open doors for other refugees who want to compete at my level,” Abbas said of his commitment to creating a legacy.


A legacy, he knows, will begin with his results in the pool.


“If I’m not good enough to be No. 1, I don’t want them to select me,” he said of Team USA. “I don’t want to just go compete, I want to go compete and win. I will train day and night. I want to test myself against the best swimmers in the world. I haven’t reached my highest potential yet.”

Stuart Lieberman has covered Paralympic sports for more than 10 years, including for the International Paralympic Committee at the London 2012, Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018 Games. He is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.