FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — After the sun comes up, it is busy at the Swim Fort Lauderdale practice pool.
Some swimmers are there for exercise, others are preparing for competition.
You cannot tell from a distance, but there is one swimmer in the pool who is different from all the rest.
“I don’t think words can describe it. As an athlete, he is one hundred percent an athlete,” said Swim Fort Lauderdale Coach Marty Hendrick.
Hendrick is talking about 23-year-old Abbas Karimi.
Karimi is one of the fastest swimmers at the practice. He was also born with no arms.
“When I swim I forget about everything else. I don’t feel like I don’t have arms when I am swimming. It gives me freedom. When I get out of the water I feel like I am reborn. That is how I feel,” said Karimi.
Karimi is a world champion swimmer.
He won second place at the Paralympic World Championships in Mexico and made it into the finals last year in London.
“I feel like something big is about to happen. Something exciting,” Karimi said. He is training for the Paralympics in Tokyo.
It has been a long journey for the champion.
He was born in Kabul, Afghanistan where he learned to swim in a river before finding a pool to train in.
“As a kid, I got bullied a lot from the kids. They called me ‘armless’ or ‘cripple.’ I grew up as a very angry kid. Just defending myself and to not get bullied I started kickboxing at the age of 12. Mixed martial arts and learned self-defense,” said Karimi.
To succeed as a competitive swimmer, Karimi knew he had to leave Afghanistan.
At 16-years-old, he left his family behind and fled to Iran, and then walked three straight days through the mountains to Turkey.
“One night we stayed in the mountain. And in the morning I was not feeling my legs. It was cold. It was so cold during the night. There was nothing to eat. I was so hungry. At that time I was regretting I put myself in this journey, but there was no turning back. I had to keep moving forward until I reached Turkey,” said Karimi.
With the help of the United Nations, Karimi eventually made it to America as a refugee. He is now training at Swim Fort Lauderdale with coaches who are learning as much from him, as he is from them.
“Everyone has challenges. Ours are just packaged differently. No one’s life is perfect. Everyone has a challenge. His is just very obvious. And life goes on. And he is making the most of it. The lesson I learned is I could be lot better person than I thought I was,” said Coach Hendrick.
Coach Ryan Rosenbaum has also been working with Karimi.
“Other swimmers next to him can be going all out, cranking their arms through the water with fins on. He is the same guy training just as hard next to them and often times he is beating them because he brings that level of detail. That is what he has shown me,” said Rosenbaum.
Karimi is hoping to make it to the podium in the 50 Butterfly at the Tokyo Paralympics.
“I do get tired. I do get sore. I suffer almost every day because of the hard practices. But that is part of being a champion. If you want to be a champion you have to make sacrifices. You have to enjoy it. I enjoy the pain and I enjoy the reward,” said Karimi.
It’s that champion mentality that keeps Karimi training six days a week in preparation for his trip to Tokyo.