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.

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.


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)