Hate crime victim celebrates swimming comeback

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A big comeback is celebrated for a victim of an unprovoked attack in his northwest suburban middle school.

Omid Babakhani, a talented young swimmer, suffered a broken collarbone in what police called a "hate crime". Five months later, he is back in the pool.

Long arms, long legs and passion have made Babakhani a promising young swimmer. But he feared his passion and more would be lost on a day last February when he walked from his school lunchroom, and heard a voice behind him say, "Hey Persian."

"I just walk away from the situation and he comes after me, viciously, and he jumps on my back, pulls me to the ground and starts punching my head repetitively," Babakhani said.

Babakhani's collarbone was badly broken on both sides, requiring titanium plates, each with six screws. Swimming was done.

"Omid walked away. Why did he go after him?" asked his mother, Melissa Babakhani.

"For a few nights I couldn't sleep," said Ben Babakhani, Omad's father. "It just kept going through your head. I mean, why? Why this happen?"

His parents were angry, and worried for their son. She of Puerto Rican heritage and he of Iranian have always taught their children, if provoked, don't engage.

"No matter what," Ben Babakhani said. "Any kind of fight. Doesn't matter if it's you or somebody else. Always walk away. And he knows that."

His 15-year-old attacker was criminally charged, given juvenile home confinement while Omid wondered about his own future. Could he swim again at the same level? Then came a surprise visit from United States swimming star B.J. Johnson, who offered some wisdom.

"And it was really motivational to it, that he encouraged me to go on, that nothing is going to stop you unless you let it," Omid Babakhani said.

He is back in the pool, swimming competitively again with his club team. He sometimes feels twinges of pain, but says, "I just swim through it."

"I want to be back where I was," he said. "To prove that it affected me, but I'm strong enough to get over it."

The Babakhani's remain shaken as a family by this experience, but are trying to keep a positive focus.

"We have all this outpouring of support that we've had and that's what's really helped us and we're just going to focus on the good," Melissa Babakhani said.

And there remains a focus on that piece of advice about handling provocation.

"The same advice I give him day in and day out, but I added just one thing. Never turn your back on the person you're walking away from," said Ben Babakhani.

The young man responsible for the attack on Omid Babakhani was charged with two counts of assault and one of committing a hate crime. In the interest of avoiding a more drawn-out legal preceding the Babakhani family did not oppose a decision to drop the hate crime charge so long as the other charges remained.

They insisted the attacker apologize, which he did, but the Babkhanis regarded the in-court apology as less than sincere. The young man was sentenced to a month of jail time, a term of five years of probation, community service and a written apology, which has yet to do.

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