Going for Gold

Marty Hendrick ’80 and Abbas Karimi have formed a familial bond. Now all that’s left for the coach and swimmer is to make history.

By Mike Unger | Photos by Madison Yelle

Marty Hendrick standing in front of the pool

Marty Hendrick is the only person at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Center doing laps—on foot. He’s on the deck of the Olympic sized pool clutching a stopwatch walking back and forth from one end to the other, his focus intently on the man in the lane closest to him.

“Little quicker on this one Abbas,” he says as he moves at a noticeably brisk pace, shadowing the swimmer, who completes a 50-meter freestyle lap in less than 40 seconds.

“Your head position is awesome,” he proclaims. “Love it! Two more like that and I’ll be ecstatic.”

Hendrick ’80 has been swimming and coaching at this world-class facility in Florida for decades. He’s won U.S. Masters Swimming (a network of more than 1,200 clubs and workout groups for serious amateurs over the age of 18) championships as a participant and has led others to titles during his career, but he’s never coached an athlete like Abbas Karimi.

The 27-year-old glides through the water with an outwardly seeming effortlessness. His legs kick powerfully yet produce little splash. Every few seconds his head emerges for a quick breath, then smoothly rotates back into the water. When he reaches the end of the pool, he launches into a flip turn with the ease of a seal.

It’s beautiful to watch. Like all great athletes, Karimi makes the incredibly difficult look routine, which is why it can take a moment for an onlooker to notice.

Abbas Karimi has no arms.

Take a moment and let that sink in. He’s swimming—incredibly fast, lap after lap for an hour—with no arms. Try to imagine yourself in the water simply attempting to stay afloat, let alone swimming competitively, while using only your legs and your core strength.

“I’ve been swimming all my life, and I try to do what he does,” says Hendrick, 65. “I put my arms to my side. I’ll put fins on because I can’t do it without them. And after going 25 yards, I’m done. And he just does it.”

He does it better than just about any other para swimmer of his kind in the world. But it’s those two little words—just about—that fuel the competitive fire in both men, who have formed a bond far stronger than coach-protégé. What was supposed to be a two-week training session in 2020 has turned into a tight-knit friendship that has enriched both their lives. They’re roommates now, and they share a singular focus; every second they spend at the pool they train with an eye toward August’s Paralympic Games in Paris.

Karimi, an Afghan by birth, a refugee by circumstance and now an American by choice, was on the U.S. team that won the gold medal in the medley relay at the 2022 World Para Swimming Championships in Portugal, and he took home two individual bronzes at the 2023 Parapan American Games in Santiago, Chile.

But his ultimate goal is to win Paralympic gold, and Hendrick has dedicated his life to helping him achieve it.

“I believe that God took my arms, but instead he gave me this gift that I can be somebody in this world,” says Karimi, who was born without his upper limbs. “I believe that my story can give some people motivation and inspiration. And I believe if we give someone encouragement, it can save someone’s life. And if I can do that, why not?”

Marty Hendrick swimming underwater and blowing a bubble ring

Marty Hendrick could walk before he could swim, but it was close. He first got in a pool around age 5, and he’s rarely left since. The fourth of five children, he grew up in Camp Springs, Maryland, before attending high school in Montgomery County. It was in Gaithersburg that he first realized his aptitude in the water.

“When we moved, all of a sudden I was the fastest swimmer in my age group, and that was fun,” he says. “After my junior year we had an intrasquad summer league meet. I headed one of the squads, and the head coach, who was a collegiate swimmer, was the head of the other. So I raced him and I kept with him. He said, ‘Where'd that come from?’ I’m like, ‘Well, I like to race.’”

Hendrick swam for four years at TU, where he majored in business administration. During the summers he returned to his swim club as a coach, and a lifelong passion for the vocation was born.

After graduating, he went to work for corporations, first for giants like Exxon and Wang, then for smaller firms.

“My business classes were great,” he says. “I remember I was about 26 and I was doing a project and I called my parents and told them that I was actually using skill sets and methodology that I learned [at TU].”

While his jobs paid the bills, swimming nourished his soul. Throughout his 24 years in business, he always swam, either for recreation or as an amateur competitor.

“Days when work is stressful, most people will go hit the bar afterwards and have a martini. And there were days that I would have liked two martinis,” he says. “But I realized swimming was my [outlet] after a stressful day. In the corporate world there’s a lot of stress. And swimming was my martini.”

At age 40 he won the U.S. Masters 400-meter individual medley (IM) national championship, but at that point, swimming was just a pastime, not a profession. That changed in 2002 when the company he worked for as a vice president was sold. A two-year non-compete clause was part of the deal, so he decided to embark of a year of volunteerism. He began working swim meets at the aquatic center in his adopted hometown of Fort Lauderdale, then started filling in as a coach. He was hooked, and when a full-time position opened in 2005, he was convinced to take it.

The U.S. Masters Swimming club he’s coached for two decades, Swim Fort Lauderdale, is comprised of more than 250 adult swimmers. Although just 20% or so of those swim competitively, the club has won seven national championships since Hendrick has been involved. His coaching philosophy is as relevant to those who swim for fitness and fun as it is for those who are all about winning.

“Swimming is one of the only sports you can do cradle to grave,” Hendrick says. “There are so many benefits, not only from the physical aspect but for mental health and overcoming obstacles and challenges in life. It’s about enjoying a healthy life through swimming and setting goals.”

After Covid hit in spring 2020, the outdoor community pools in Fort Lauderdale were some of the first in the country to reopen. Hendrick got a call from his friend, Linda Larson, a member of Swim Fort Lauderdale who also spent time in her native Oregon. Abbas Karimi was a swimmer at her brother’s club in Portland, and he was looking for a new coach and place to train.

Hendrick, who like most everyone else at the time was suffering through a sort of pandemic malaise, was hesitant at first. Retirement was the main thing on his mind, but Larson convinced him to work with Karimi for two weeks.

“I think Marty needed something right then because of Covid. This gave him an opportunity to coach someone different,” she says. “Marty is a great communicator. He has that personality that people gravitate to. It’s easy for him to talk to anybody, and people respect him.”

Two weeks. That’s the commitment Hendrick thought he was making. When he says that out loud four years later, he laughs.

Kickboxing was Abbas Karimi’s first sport, which makes sense on many levels. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, he faced relentless bullying for most of his young life. He liked the physicality—and practicality—of martial arts. Bruce Lee was a hero.

When he was about 10 years old, he jumped fully clothed into a river with some friends. A new feeling of freedom washed over him. When one of his brothers built a swimming pool as a business, Karimi dove into the sport. He began training with a coach four or five times a week.

“ Swimming is one of the only sports you can do cradle to grave. ”

Marty Hendrick ’80

“I always wanted to face my fears,” he says. “It was not natural. It was something that I had to do to save myself, to find out who I am. I wanted to face that darkness that is inside me or scares me.”

Karimi says he was an angry boy before he started swimming. But being in the water offered him a respite from the cruelty and prejudices of his peers and countrymen.

“Every time I swim, it makes me feel calmed down. And it’s refreshing. It feels like I’m reborn every time.”

Marty Hendrick swimming underwater

As Karimi became a successful para swimmer and his prominence rose, he felt less safe living under Taliban rule, so in 2013, he dropped out of school at the age of 16 and fled the country. After a harrowing trip through Iran, he wound up in Turkey, where he spent the next four years at refugee camps.

“It was very challenging. There was a lot of suffering and struggling,” he says. “But at the same time, I was very thankful of God that at least I have the camp that feeds me and gives me a room.”

Karimi, a naturally affable person, was lonely, but perhaps even worse, he could not train at the level he wanted. He would take buses from the camps to a pool and work with Turkish coaches, but he yearned for more. He began posting videos of himself swimming on social media, and they caught the eye of an American named Mike Ives.

After a lengthy and complicated process, Ives brought Karimi to Oregon, where he helped him learn, among other things, to drive. Karimi can accomplish nearly any task using his feet. He deftly grabs a fork between his toes feeds himself with ease. In the pool, he hoists his leg high over his head onto the deck and propels himself out. His flexibility is astounding.

In 2017, Ives and Karimi went to Mexico City for the World Para Swimming Championships, where he won a silver medal in the S5 50-meter butterfly (para-athletic butterflyers with physical disabilities are classified by their functional disability, ranging from S1, the most impaired, to S10, the least impaired, according to World ParaSwimming) for the refugee team.

Swimmer Marty Hendrick and coach Abbas Karimi

Karimi calls Ives his “American father,” which made his decision to leave Portland for Fort Lauderdale in 2020 that much more difficult. But he and Hendrick hit it off immediately.

“He is always very positive and very helpful, very supportive,” Karimi says of Hendrick. “After a week, he told me that he feels like he knows me for many, many years. And then he said, ‘You can stay here if you want.’ Of course, he’s a coach on the deck and in the swimming pool. But at home, we’re buddies. We watch movies together, all those kind of things. He’s the nicest person that I ever met.”

Their first major competition together was the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo (held in 2021). Karimi was the flag-bearer for the refugee team during the opening ceremonies. In the Paralympics, the refugee team leads the parade of nations, so Karimi led all athletes into the stadium. He competed in the 50-meter butterfly S5 and qualified for the final, in which he finished eighth. It was a remarkable achievement, but it left both Karimi and Hendrick thirsting for more.

There’s almost nothing Karimi thinks that he cannot do.

“I don’t like to make my disability an excuse because if I did, I would not be successful. I want to be the best,” says Karimi, who is publishing an autobiography titled “The Gift” this year. “I like to show the world that if a family is about to have a disabled child, they have to be very excited because that child could be very special. We may be missing some part of our body, but we can be part of society. We can be part of the country. We can be part of the world and make the world a better place.”

It's early February, Fort Lauderdale’s busiest time for tourism. If it weren’t for the constant hum of cars on Florida’s famed A1A, you might be able to hear the Atlantic Ocean’s waves from the aquatic center, which sits in the shadow of the International Swimming Hall of Fame right across the street from the beach. While tourists are lathering up for another day of lounging like lizards in the sun, no one at the pool is on vacation.

Karimi jumps feet first into the water at 8 a.m., by which time Hendrick has already been on deck coaching others for three hours. Fatigue, if there is any, doesn’t show on his tan, white-bearded face. His attitude is lively, his body language positive, and his laugh frequent. This Friday is the first day of a new training regimen that he hopes will have Karimi in peak form for the U.S. Paralympic Trials in June.

“ In the corporate world there’s a lot of stress. And swimming was my martini. ”


“One of the things we’re working on is his breathing,” Hendrick says as he watches Karimi. “We don’t want the kick to stop. In able-bodied swimmers the constant movement is coming from the arms. His constant movement is his legs, so I should be able to turn away and not hear any difference of the cadence.”

In the lane next to him, 19-year-old Anastasia Pagonis methodically swims freestyle laps. When she approaches the end of the pool, her mother, Stacey, uses what looks like a boom mic to gently tap her on the head, alerting Anastasia to execute a flip turn. Pagonis, who won a freestyle gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics, is blind. She and Karimi have formed a friendship, and during a brief break he asks her how practice is going.

“Hard,” she says. “Very hard.”

“But you’re a legend,” he replies.

She smiles, and both submerge themselves for yet another lap.

“Abbas is great at motivating other athletes, and Marty just wants to see people live their life like they’re capable of,” Stacey says, as she watches them practice. “They just both have such incredible hearts.”

After the workout ends, Karimi hits the shower while Hendrick heats up his breakfast. Egg and spinach bites are on the menu today. Eating healthy and packing in calories are important because there’s always another training session on the horizon, always another barrier to break.

After all, Paris awaits.