From fear of water to gold medal, Bosnian swimmer beats the odds

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Six-year-old Bosnian Ismail Zulfic was born without arms and with a foot deformity and overcame his fear of the water to win a gold medal at a regional swimming competition.

At the competition in Croatia, Ismail was cheered on by members of his swimming club, set up by Amel Kapo to coach disabled swimmers, and by his parents, who drive him twice a week to Sarajevo, 70 km (45 miles) from their home in the central Bosnian town of Zenica for swimming lessons.

Ismail’s parents never dreamed their shy boy, who developed a fear of water after an incident in a rubber pool, would become a medal-winning swimmer. He could barely be persuaded into the water for therapeutic treatment for his back, which Ismail bends constantly to eat, write, use a joystick or fit on his swimming goggles with his feet.

But then he met Kapo, who set up the Spid swimming club more than a year ago after noticing that many disabled swimmers went to the pool without professional supervision. Kapo taught Ismail to swim.

“After a few months of practice Ismail was able to dive in and swim the length of the Olympic sized pool without any help,” Kapo said, explaining that the boy’s success was the result of mutual trust and Ismail’s determination.

A year later Ismail powered to the finish of the 50-metre back stroke, well ahead of rivals, some nearly twice his age, at the regional competition in Zagreb.

“I like to win,” a smiling Ismail told Reuters, adding he also holds a medal in skiing.

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Kapo said his club sought only to give the children a taste of competition, but along with Ismail, five other Spid swimmers won gold medals and two won silver.

Their achievement is even more remarkable given the lack of state aid for disabled children in Bosnia. Kapo and three other volunteers provide swimming lessons in what is the only club of its kind in the country.

It costs 1,650 Bosnian marka ($939) a month to use the municipal swimming pool, paid for by donations from local businesses.

The long trips to swimming lessons are costly for Ismail’s father Ismet, a steel factory worker, and his unemployed mother Elmina.

“We are managing somehow. In the end no money can buy the smile that lights up Ismail’s face when he swims and the pride he gives us,” Ismet said.

Kapo said he hoped Ismail’s example would help raise awareness and overcome the exclusion faced by many people with disabilities in Bosnia.

Reporting by Maja Zuvela; Editing by Janet Lawrence