When he lost his lower leg in a 2012 bomb explosion in Syria, Ibrahim al-Hussein never imagined that he would one day swim in the pool where his Olympic idols broke records.
Just four years later, he was the flag bearer of a token refugee team debuting at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, and is now eyeing a return to competition at the Tokyo Games.
“Nothing is impossible,” said the 32-year-old as he arrived to begin a day of training at the Olympic Aquatic Center in Athens, adding that he hopes to inspire fellow refugees.
“You have to fight, with your body, with your heart... You can do anything you want in your life,” al-Hussein said.
When he was still 15, al-Hussein would follow the exploits of Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps in the 2004 Athens Games from his home in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor.
The pool in Athens “is where my story began,” he said, smiling.
As a child, al-Hussein would swim along the banks of the Euphrates River with his father, already harboring Olympic dreams.
His hopes came crashing down when Syria was engulfed in civil war in 2011 and his family was forced to flee.
Al-Hussein stayed behind at first, but after his right leg was injured in the bomb blast and it had to be amputated, he had to leave, too, reaching Greece via Turkey in February 2014.
Like tens of thousands of other refugees, he made the risky Aegean Sea crossing and landed at the Greek island of Samos.
“Life in Syria was exceptionally difficult. There was nothing to eat, no electricity, no medicine,” he said. “Had I stayed there, I’d be dead.”
After living on the streets of Athens for two weeks, al-Hussein was directed by a fellow Syrian to Angelos Chronopoulos, a Greek doctor who gave him a prosthetic limb.
Acquiring refugee status in 2015, he found work and began to pick up the pieces.
“I was looking for a new homeland, somewhere to resume my life and sport. Greece became my homeland,” he said.
After notching victories in Greece disabled competitions, he caught the attention of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, which picked him to carry the torch of the 2016 Rio Games flame relay in the Athens refugee camp of Eleonas.
After that, the International Paralympic Committee offered him the opportunity to join the first-ever refugee team for the Rio Games, and to carry its flag into the historic Estadio do Maracana.
He has since participated in European and global disabled swimming championships.
The irony is not lost on al-Hussein that he only fulfilled his dream of competing in the Olympics after he lost a leg.
“When I had both legs, it was my dream to compete in the Olympics, but I did not make it. I got here [with one leg instead],” he said, laughing. “I wouldn’t stop even if I lost my other leg, or an arm. I want to go to Tokyo and I’m going to get there.”
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