“Hey Persian,” the boy yelled.
Omid Babakhani tried to do the right thing. In Feb. 2014, as an eighth-grader at Hannah Beardsley Middle School in Crystal Lake, he tried to walk away when another student insulted him, then insulted his mother. Babakhani, whose father is Iranian, turned his back and headed the other way.
Then he felt himself being wrapped into a headlock and slammed to the ground. The other student punched him in the head. Babakhani, 16, now a junior at Crystal Lake Central, has a hard time remembering exactly what happened.
“There was a big circle around us,” he recalled. “If you can imagine like in a movie where there’s the big circle with everyone yelling, ‘Fight, fight, fight.’ That’s kind of what happened.”
A friend pulled them apart and teachers quickly arrived. Afterward, Babakhani couldn’t move his upper body. He needed a wheelchair to reach the nurse’s office. The assault left him with a broken collarbone on each side of his neck.
“It was excruciating,” he said. “On my left side I could feel my bones grinding against each other. On my right side you could see one of the bones starting to push against my skin.”
Two weeks later, Babakhani had titanium plates and 12 screws surgically inserted into his collarbones. Within days he was up and moving again.
It would be a while, however, before he was back in one of the places he felt most comfortable: the pool.
“For me, it’s always been something in my life that I felt like I had complete control over,” Babakhani said. “When I went out there and a swam, whatever I did was for me. That always gave me a sense of pride that whatever I accomplished, it was all from what I myself was willing to push myself to do.”
The injuries put his young swimming career in serious doubt. The boy who attacked Babakhani pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated battery and apologized in juvenile court. As part of the plea deal, he avoided hate crime charges.
Babakhani returned to the pool within a few months of the attack, but it was a long time before he felt right again.
“It’s hard to say, to be honest,” Babakhani said. “Even today when I swim, sometimes I still feel pain from my shoulders.”
The goal remains high heading into IHSA sectionals this weekend.
“Aiming for state, that’s for sure,” Scott Lattyak said.
The C-G co-op boys swimming coach is optimistic for Babakhani and his team.
Made up of students from C-G, Central, Crystal Lake South and Prairie Ridge, C-G has the potential to send its largest group to state.
Babakhani is an integral part of that.
Last year as a sophomore, Babakhani was sick and missed sectionals when his 200-yard freestyle relay team qualified for state. He was forced to be the alternate at state.
This year, he has his sights set on the 200 and 400 freestyle relays, as well as the 50 freestyle and 100 freestyle. In the 200 free relay, he swims with Ethan Hare, Cameron Castro and Kolin Fadden. In the 400 free relay, he teams with Hare, Fadden and Connor Dolezal. Both relay teams won the Fox Valley Conference title over the weekend.
Babakhani won the FVC title in the 50 free and finished third in the 100 free. For Babakhani, the 50 free is his favorite.
“It’s all about perfection,” he said. “When I jump in the water, I try not to think and try to do what I’ve practiced time and time again. The 50 is unique in that way.”
Lattyak thinks the 6-foot-1, 170-pound junior has a shot to qualify for state, both in his individual events and with his relay teams.
Babakhani always swam, but didn’t take it up competitively until sixth grade. Outside of the high school season, he swims with the Sage YMCA Piranhas. Because he picked it up late, he didn’t have the stamina of other kids, so coaches started him with the sprints. He has stuck with them ever since.
When Babakhani returned to school after his surgery, he admits he was nervous. His friends showed support and helped him get back into the routine. Returning to the pool that spring was more a relief than anything.
“It was so nice to come back to something I had always had,” Babakhani said. “It was like a constant in my life before and [then] I wasn’t able to do it. It felt so natural for me to jump back in that water and do a couple laps.”
A coach at Crystal Lake Country Club, Ed Richardson – who now coaches with the Piranhas – helped him work his way back into competitive shape. The summer after the injuries, another coach arranged for USA swimmer B.J. Johnson to meet with Babakhani.
Johnson was late to swimming growing up. He told Babakhani that he knew what it was like to be behind the competition. He told Babakhani to stick with it, even if the injury and the missed time set him back at first.
“You’ll be better than you’ve ever been before,” Johnson told him.
Lattyak was the junior varsity swimming coach when Babakhani joined the program as a freshman. Lattyak noticed the scars, a few inches long on each collarbone.
They are visible reminders of the titanium plates and screws underneath. When Lattyak saw the scars, he asked Babakhani about them.
“I was just baffled,” Lattyak said. “I couldn’t even believe it. Omid really does exhibit an amazing character for having gone through something like that.”
Babakhani believes the incident made him a stronger person and swimmer. After falling ill during sectionals last season, he now has his chance to prove himself. C-G competes Saturday at the Barrington Sectional with team and individual trips to state on the line.
“I came back into that water with more motivation to do good,” Babakhani said. “I tried to make it so that that event wouldn’t define my swimming career, and I wanted to prove to everyone and myself that no matter what happened, I could get back in there and do something with it.”
IHSA BOYS SWIMMING
St. Charles East Sectional
9 a.m. Saturday