Afghan amputee swimmer aims for international success

KABUL (Reuters) - It took a pair of landmines that severed Malek Mohammad's legs for him to find his life's passion for swimming in land-locked Afghanistan.

He was 11 years old when he stepped on the mines as he gathered firewood in a vacant lot in Kabul, a city still trying to recover from years of civil war.

"When I lost my legs ... I was in a terrible condition because I didn't know about my future and I was feeling very bad," Mohammad, now 24, told Reuters as he rested after swim practice on a recent morning in Kabul.

Faced with an uncertain future in a country where many war victims face lifetimes of suffering, Mohammad's life changed when a U.S. government official arranged for him to receive treatment, physical therapy, and education in the United States.

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Afghan amputee swimmers
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Khan Agha 28, sits in a swimming pool during his practice in Kabul, Afghanistan May 16, 2017. Picture taken May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Malik Mohammad 24, relaxes in the pool during his training in Kabul, Afghanistan May 18, 2017. Picture taken May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Malik Mohammad 24, arrives for a training in a swimming pool in Kabul, Afghanistan May 16, 2017. Picture taken May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Malik Mohammad 24, arrives for a training in a swimming pool in Kabul, Afghanistan May 18, 2017. Picture taken May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Malik Mohammad 24, jumps in a swimming pool during his training in Kabul, Afghanistan May 16, 2017. Picture taken May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Zubair Haidari 38, poses for a picture after his practice in a swimming pool in Kabul, Afghanistan May 16, 2017. Picture taken May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Malik Mohammad 24, leaves his house in Kabul, Afghanistan May 18, 2017. Picture taken May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Malik Mohammad 24, wears his prosthetic leg in his house in Kabul, Afghanistan May 18, 2017. Picture taken May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Malik Mohammad 24, (2nd L) trains in a swimming pool in Kabul, Afghanistan May 16, 2017. Picture taken May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Khan Agha 28, trains in a swimming pool in Kabul, Afghanistan May 16, 2017. Picture taken May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Malik Mohammad 24, trains in a gym in Kabul, Afghanistan May 18, 2017. Picture taken May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
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It was there that Mohammad first learned to swim, and put him on a track to what he hopes will eventually be sporting glory at the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo.

"I hope to be selected there to represent my country, because the amputee community are looking at me," Mohammad said.

His dreams of competing in the Olympics have been dashed before, when he failed to make the cut for the summer games in London in 2012.

He hopes that a good showing in the World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City in September will help him get close to his dream.

Nothing in Afghanistan is easy, however.

Mohammad says his application to the Mexico games has been delayed by conflicting details on his identification papers, a common problem in Afghanistan where many people, including Mohammad, don't know their exact birth date and other information.

The team members hope to follow 18-year-old Abbas Karimi, who recently qualified for Mexico while living and training in the United States.

The lack of resources for a world-class training program makes it difficult for the members of the Afghan Paralympic swimming team who don't have access to international facilities and support.

Three members of the team, all with amputations from war wounds, train in small public pools with little government support.

They are coached by Mohammad Jawad, a veteran javelin thrower, who volunteers his time to help.

"Malek is a talented person and he has already competed in international competitions, but this time if he does his best efforts, God willing, I am sure he can achieve great things for his country at the Olympic Games as well," said Jawad.

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The best photos from the 2016 Rio Paralympics
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The best photos from the 2016 Rio Paralympics
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 07: Clodoaldo Silva lights the cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Maracana Stadium on September 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 07: Fireworks explode during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Maracana Stadium on September 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 07: Dancer Amy performs with robot KUKA during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Maracana Stadium on September 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Bruna Prado/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 07: Dancer Amy perform with robot KUKA during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Maracana Stadium on September 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
2016 Rio Paralympics - Opening ceremony - Maracana - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 07/09/2016. A performer in a wheelchair takes part in the opening ceremony. TSRIO2016 REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 08: Daniel Dias of Brazil competes in the Men's 200m Freestyle S5 Final on day 1 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Olympic Aquatics Stadium on September 8, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 09: Jody Cundy of Great Britain competes in the Men's 1km Time Trial C4-5 Final on day 2 of the Rio 2016 Paralympics at Rio Olympic Velodrome on September 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 09: Jonnie Peacock of Great Britain leads the Men's 100m T44 Final on day 2 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on September 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 10: Lucas Sithole of South Africa and Ymanitu Silva of Brazil celebrate together after competing in the wheelchair tennis at central court on day 3 of the Rio 2016 Paralympics on September 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Lucas Uebel/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 10: Kadeena Cox of Great Britain celebrates on the podium after winning Women's C4-5 500m Time Trial track cycling on day 3 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Velodrome on September 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 10: Vanessa Low of Germany poses after setting uo the world record fpr the women's long jump - T42 final on day 3 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Olympic stadium on September 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images for Tokyo 2020)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 11: (L to R) Silver medalist Hailey Danisewicz, Gold medalist Allysa Seely and Bronze medalist Melissa Stockwell of the United States celebrates on the podium at the medal ceremony for the Triathlon Women's T2 at Forte de Copacabana on day 4 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games on September 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
2016 Rio Paralympics - Men's 200m - T42 Round 1 Heat 1 - Olympic Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 10/09/2016. Richard Whitehead of Britain competes. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 11: Richard Whitehead of Great Britain wins the men's 200 meter T42 final at Olympic Stadium during day 4 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games on September 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 12: Nurulasyiqah Mohammad Taha of Singapore competes in the Boccia - Mixed Pairs - BC3 Bronze Medal Match at Carioca Arena 2 on day 5 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at on September 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 14: (L to R) Silver medalist Claire Cashmore of Great Britain, gold medalist Katarina Roxon of Canada and bronze medalist Ellen Keane of Ireland celebrate on the podium at the medal ceremony for the Womens 100m Breaststroke - SB8 Final during day 7 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on September 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 14: Andreas Onea of Austria competes at the Mens 100m Breaststroke - SB8 Final during day 7 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on September 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 15: Luca Mazzone of Italy leads to William Groulx of the United States compete in the Men's Road Race H2 on day 8 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Pontal on September 15, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 15: Terezinha Guilhermina of Brazil competes in the Women's 400m - T11 heats during day 8 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on September 15, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 16: Terezinha Guilherminha of Brazil competes in the Women's 400m - T11 during day 9 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on September 16, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Lucas Uebel/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 16: Matija Sloup of Croatia competes in Men's Shot Put - F40 during day 9 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on September 16, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Lucas Uebel/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 16: The team of USA celebrates after winning the Women's Wheelchair Basketball Final between Germany and USA at Olympic Arena on day 9 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games on September 16, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 16: Jeff Fabry of United States of America competes against Dong-Sub Koo of Republic of Korea at the Menâs Archery Individual W1 Qualifying during day 9 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Sambodromo on September 16, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Bruna Prado/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 17: Marc Evers of the Netherlands competes in the Men's 200m Individual Medley - SM14 Final on day 10 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 18: Iran celebrates after winning the Sitting Volleyball Final between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran on day 11 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Riocentro Pavilion 6 on September 18, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 18: Marcel Hug of Switzerland competes in the Men's Marathon - T54 at Fort Copacabana on day 11 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at on September 18, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 18: Marcel Hug of Switzerland celebrates the victory in the Men's Marathon - T54 at Fort Copacabana on day 11 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at on September 18, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 17: Regas Woods of United States competes in the Men's Long Jump - T42 final during day 10 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Lucas Uebel/Getty Images)
2016 Rio Paralympics - Table Tennis - Men's Singles Class 6 Group D - Riocentro Pavillion 3 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 09/09/2016. Ibrahim Hamadtou (EGY) of Egypt competes. REUTERS/Pilar OLivares FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE OR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Cycling Track - Final - Men's C1-2-3 1000m Time Trial Final - Olympic Velodrome - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 10/09/2016. Fujita Masaki (JPN) of Japan gestures. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Rowing- Victory Ceremony - LTA Mixed Coxed Four LTAMIX4+ Victory Ceremony - Lagoa Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 11/09/2016. Bronze medalists Victoria Nolan, Meghan Montgomery, Andrew Todd, Curtis Halladay and Kristen Kit of Canada pose with their medals. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics -Triathlon - Women's PT2 - Fort Copacabana - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 11/09/2016. Allysa Seely (USA) of the United States and Lisa Lilja (FIN) of Finland compete. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Wheelchair Fencing - Final - Men's Individual Sabre Category A Bronze Medal Final - Carioca Arena 3 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 12/09/2016. Vasileios Ntounis (R) of Greece competes with Tian Jianquan of China. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Boccia - Final - Mixed Pairs BC3 Gold Medal Final - Brazil v Korea- Carioca Arena 2 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 12/09/2016. Antonio Leme of Brazil reacts. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Athletics - Men's 1500m - T11 Final - Olympic Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 13/09/2016. Samwel Mushai Kimani of Kenya wins the gold medal in the event. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Athletics - Men's Javelin Throw - F46 Final - Olympic Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 13/09/2016. Guo Chunliang of China competes. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Athletics - Men's Long Jump - T47 Final - Olympic Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 14/09/2016. Fish-eye lens view of Setiyo Budi of Indonesia competing. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Cycling Road - Final - Men's Road Race C1-2-3 - Pontal - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 16/09/2016. Roger Bolliger (R) of Switzerland and Shota Kawamoto of Japan compete. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Boccia - Bronze Medal Match - Mixed Individual - BC2 - Carioca Arena 2 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 16/09/2016. China's Yan Zhiqiang celebrates. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
2016 Rio Paralympics - Wheelchair Basketball - Playoff - Women's Playoff - Canada v China - Rio Olympic Arena - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 16/09/2016. Canada's men's wheelchair basketball team player Adam Lancia kisses his wife Jamey Jewells of Canada after her match. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Wheelchair Basketball - Final - Women's Gold Medal Final - Germany v USA - Rio Olympic Arena - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 16/09/2016. Rebecca Murray (C) of USA is sandwiched as she fight for the ball. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Wheelchair Basketball - Final - Men's Bronze Medal Final - Britain v Turkey - Rio Olympic Arena - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 17/09/2016. Players of Britain celebrate victory. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Football Soccer - Final - Men's 5-a-side Bronze Medal Final - China v Argentina - Olympic Tennis Centre - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 17/09/2016. Wang Zhoubin (L to R) of China, Federico Accardi and Froilan Padilla of Argentina in action. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Wheelchair Fencing - Bronze Medal Match - Women's Foil Team - Carioca Arena 3 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 16/09/2016. Italy's Beatrice Vio celebrates after beating Hong Kong's Yu Chui Yee HKG. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Sitting Volleyball - Final - Men's Gold Medal Match - Riocentro Pavilion 6 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 18/09/2016. Players of team Iran observe a minute of silence for Iranian cyclist Sarafraz Bahman Golbarnezhad, REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Wheelchair Rugby - Final - Mixed Team Gold Medal Final - Australia v USA - Carioca Arena 1 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 18/09/2016. Josh Wheeler (R) of USA reacts as Ryley Batt of Australia celebrates winning gold medals. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Powerlifting - Final - Men's -59kg Group A Final - Riocentro Pavillion 2 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 09/09/2016. Ali Jawad (GBR) of Great Britain reacts. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE OR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Men's High Jump - T42 Final - Olympic Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 09/09/2016. Jeroen Teeuwen of the Netherlands competes. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
2016 Rio Paralympics - Closing Ceremony - Maracana - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 18/09/2016. Fireworks erupt during the closing ceremony. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
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COMFORT IN SWIMMING

Like many Afghans, Mohammad has been caught in the increasing global tensions as fighting sends hundreds and thousands fleeing.

His prosthetic legs have begun to wear after eight years, and a clinic in the United States has offered to provide treatment.

Mohammad's application for an American visa was denied last year, however, with the State Department saying he had not proved that he would willingly return to Afghanistan.

He is working to reapply for a visa, but with several high-profile cases of Afghans using visas to seek asylum in the West, it is not clear that he will be able to get the treatment he needs.

No matter what happens, Mohammad says the pool has become a comforting place, because in the water it does not matter that he lost his legs.

"Winning or losing the game is not important for me because this is a pride for me that despite losing my legs I can swim and feel myself relaxed in the water," he said.

He has become a minor celebrity in Afghanistan and internationally, proudly mentioning the time he met former U.S. president George H.W. Bush.

Mohammad and his family still express surprise at how his potentially life-ending injury changed his life.

"I was hopeless and crying," said his mother, Bibi Sabza Gul. "Imagine when you see your son lose two legs and covered with blood."

Now those horrible memories have faded, she said.

"I'm really happy seeing my son improving day by day in his career. He is helping his sisters and brothers and encouraging them in sports so I am not concerned about him anymore."

(Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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