Karimi was born without arms, diagnosed with congenital limb deficiency.
Despite their initial worries, Karimi said his family decided to raise him like the rest of his siblings, pouring as much love and support into their child as possible.
“That was his expectation from all my family, and that’s what they did. They raised me and I was just like a normal child,” Karimi added.
But Karimi’s parents couldn’t protect him from the relentless abuse he received from kids at school. As a result, he took up kickboxing when he was 12, in order to protect himself from the bullies.
“People were judging me every time that I was going outside,” he said. “The kids were calling me ‘armless,’ ‘cripple’ […] that made me angry,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to learn martial arts […] I wanted to defend myself.”
Finding refuge in the water
Despite learning martial arts, Karimi found solace in another world altogether — the water.
From the age of about eight, Karimi said he would skip school and go out with his friends to swim in the local river.
When Karimi was 13, he said his brother constructed a 25-meter swimming pool for the local community, and he started to realize the power he possessed in his lower body.
“As a kid, I started going to school and somehow my family and myself, I found out that, ‘OK, I don’t have arms, but I have my feet,'” he said.
“I think that’s how it started my interest. I feel good in the water, but I never had to believe in myself that as a kid that I could learn swimming without arms, until my brother […] he built a pool.
“I put a life jacket there and there was a lifeguard there, and I asked him […] ‘Can I learn swimming?’ He said, ‘Yeah, there’s swimmers with no arms and legs that they learned how to swim. You know, you just don’t have arms. Of course, you can.'”
In the end, Karimi said it was the water that made him “feel free.”
“This is my freedom and I [feel] reborn every time I jump in the water.”
But Karimi’s life changed when he was 16.
Growing up in Afghanistan — a country stricken by war involving foreign forces — he was desperate to find a way out.
He fled the country and flew to Iran, moving on a week later and says he paid smugglers to undertake a three-day trek in the Zagros Mountains — leading him to Turkey.
He said he was fraught with anxiety: “I didn’t know that where are we going to end? […] Are we going to make it to Turkey? We didn’t know because there was not just me, there was a lot of people.
“It was a horrible and a scary journey. It was a lot of fear,” he said. “I kept praying that I don’t get captured, and I don’t get in trouble.
“But somehow we got in Turkey. Every time I go back to that time that I went through, it’s very scary.
“But I dared to do that, and I got it done.”
Karimi’s journey from Afghanistan wasn’t born out of free will but rather necessity.
“There’s a lot of unsafe places where I used to live,” he said. “I just wanted to get out of there […] so no one can tell me what to do. I just wanted to be independent, just like everyone else wants to.”
Karimi spent four years in Turkey and lived in four different refugee camps. In the second camp, which accommodated people with disabilities, he swam twice a day to train — journeying to and from the pool by bus.
“I knew that swimming is going to make a great personality for me, and that’s what happened,” he said.
“I wanted to be something big, to be better than anyone else. But the point is, you don’t have to be better than anyone else. You just have to be you and that’s it.”
Resettling in the US
While Karimi was in Turkey, he won 15 medals including two Turkish national championships but said he could not compete on an international stage because he didn’t have valid documentation.
However, his luck changed in September 2015, when former wrestling coach Mike Ives saw a video on Facebook of Karimi swimming and calling on the Afghan government to help him compete at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.
Ives, who was supporting refugee athletes post-retirement, reached out to Karimi and liaised with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help Karimi resettle in Portland, Oregon in 2016.
“He’s like my American father, another father figure to me. I thought it’s not possible to go to the USA just like that. But he made it happen,” Karimi told the International Paralympic Committee
. “Going to the USA gave me a second chance in life to pursue my dreams.”
Qualifying for Tokyo 2020
Since then, Karimi has earned success after success — including silver at the World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico in 2017 — and announcing his qualification
for his first Games at Tokyo 2020 this summer, where he’ll be representing the Refugee Paralympic Team.
“I knew that I’m going to be selected before they announced it because I did everything I had to do,” he told CNN. “But of course, it was up to them to select the best refugee Paralympic athletes to go […] to Tokyo.”
“It felt like after nine years, all these struggles, every part that I put in myself, every risk that I took, it’s all worth it, and now it’s real.”
Karimi said he has his heart set on making the podium, and “will get the job done successfully.”
“I’m very, very excited, very nervous. But I keep myself on the track and keep focusing on myself and get better every day,” he said.
“Before I retire, I have to win that Paralympic medal, and that’s how I want to leave my legacy. It probably will happen this year, or in the next three years, but it’s going to happen, and I promise you that.”
‘It made my father proud’
Karimi said he owes much of his success to Ives and his Afghan coach Qasim Hamidi.
“He [Hamidi] saw me and he noticed that I can swim a little […] then he taught me a couple of techniques and he said, ‘I’m going to make a great hero out of you. I’m going to make a great champion out of you,'” he said. “Then I started trusting myself.”
“I kept swimming and swimming. That’s how it gave me the belief that it doesn’t matter if I have a loss of facility […] I’m so young and I have determination. I know I have that motivation […] and, one day, I can become a champion.”
Karimi also paid tribute to his late father, and said when he received the news of his death in 2019, he felt like he was “falling apart.”
“I felt like I’m in the sky and I fall down to the earth,” he added. “Even my father, he didn’t know that I’m going to be a swimmer and I’m going to be a champ one day.
“I created all of these things because it made sense for myself, and it made my father proud.”
Competing on the world stage
The para swimmer is aware of the increased visibility he has with his newfound platform. Now that he’s competing on a global stage, Karimi said he wants to represent people with disabilities, as well as refugees.
“I know every disabled person in this world […] doesn’t matter if you don’t have some part of your leg or your arm, but you have your brain, your heart, and you have to stand up and fight for it. And I’m one of them,” he said.
“I will do my best to prove myself that it doesn’t matter I don’t have arms […] I’m equal as a regular person that has arms and legs.”
As part of World Refugee Day on June 20, Karimi was interviewed by
famed novelist and fellow Afghan refugee Khaled Hosseini, an experience he called “a big honor.”
“We have a good friendship between us. I’m very proud of him, and I hope he is proud of me. And we’re trying to do good stuff in this world,” he said.
“It means no matter what we’ve been through, how much struggles we’ve been through […] as a displaced people, but we’re strong and we want to do good stuff in this world and we want to make the world a better place.”
‘I always seek hope’
Having embarked upon a long and turbulent trek to Tokyo, Karimi’s faith has remained his only constant.
“My father was a very religious person and he taught me everything about my religion and I have a connection, a special connection between me and my God,” he said.
“I made a lot of sacrifices, in every step […] God, Allah, He was with me, and I felt that.
“My religion taught me to respect every single person and everything in this world. I don’t judge the universe. I always seek hope in every single time of my life.
“When God takes something from you, instead He gives you something else, and that’s what I believe.”
Karimi has faced innumerable hardships throughout his life, but his boundless sense of optimism and gratitude seems to exceed any heartache he may feel.
“Everything I did in the past nine years is because I don’t want to live as a regret[ful] person the rest of my life. I know that I could be a lot of things and I have a lot of skills, but swimming was the only thing that was making me happy,” he said.
“No matter what we are going through, no matter how life is difficult and so hard […] I have learned that life is beautiful, and it’s worth it to put yourself in every risk to achieve your goals and dreams and be the person who you are.”