6-year-old disabled Bosnian boy defies odds, becomes swimming champion

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He was born without arms and a deformed foot, but those were not the only challenges 6-year-old Ismail Zulfic faced before becoming a champion swimmer.

The young Bosnian boy was terrified to get into the water.

It was through the help and encouragement of 30-year-old coach Amel Kapo and his team, that Ismail overcame those fears and brought home a gold medal at a regional competition for disabled swimmers last spring.

Kapo founded the special needs swim club Spid, which provides free swimming class to children with disabilities.

It's the only known organization of its kind in Bosnia, where state aid and access to school and sports for the disabled remain extremely limited.

Figures show there are some 300,000 people with disabilities among Bosnia's population of 3.5 million. (That includes the estimated 84,000 who were left with disabilities from that country's civil war from 1992 to 1995.)

Those with disabilities are among the most vulnerable groups, according to Unicef, which notes it's especially difficult for children, who are restricted access to basic education and marginalized from an early age.

Kapo said initially, he set up the club to offer children with disabilities a chance to receive some instruction and experience a little competition.

But Ismail and five of his other swimmers far exceeded expectations by taking gold and silver medals in the regional competition that took place in Croatia.

Since Kapo launched Spid in February 2016, the club has grown to serve 50 children from all over Bosnia.

When the coach first came up with the idea, he did not expect securing funding for the project would be that difficult, but all he ended up receiving was a grant worth about $1100 from the country's culture ministry.

But like his little swimmers, Kapo forged ahead and pushed through.

It costs almost $1,000 a month to use the municipal swimming pool and he's been able to operate the club with the help of two local businesses.

For Ismail's family, sending him to Spid has been no easy feat, and they never expected their quiet, timid boy would take to the swim lessons.

Ismail's father, Ismet, is a steel factory worker and his mother, Elmina, is unemployed.

The swim club is some 45 miles away from the Zulfic's home, and the cost of gas and swimming gear are expenditures they can't easily afford.

So Spid has stepped in to help cover some of those expenses and to allow Ismail to continue to thrive in his newfound athletic skills.

Under Kapo's watch, it only took a few months of practice for Ismail to dive into the water and swim the length of an Olympic sized pool without assistance, according to the coach.

And it was only a year later he jumped into the water to dominate the 50-meter back stroke to win his gold.

Ismail's parents call their champion swimmer a fighter, one who has demonstrated to them and others how to truly appreciate life.

Some of Kapo's swimmers are now in Germany for the World Para Swimming World Series being held this week.

Kapo's wife, Sanita Maleskic tells KTVU that their group was able to travel to Berlin by car, thanks to financial aid they received from the National Paralympic Committee.

Ismail was not able to join this time around because he did not make the minimum age requirement which is set at 12-years-old, according to Maleskic.  

Kapo says he hopes Ismail's story, along with those of his other swimmers will inspire and raise awareness about the challenges people with disabilities face, especially when they don't have the financial support and other assistance they need.