13-year old hate crime survivor Omid Babakhani, receives a surprise visit by BJ Johnson, a swimmer on the U.S. national team at a banquet. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)

A world-class swimmer and 2016 Olympic hopeful showed up at a Crystal Lake banquet hall Sunday morning to surprise a 13-year-old boy who in February was the target of an alleged hate crime in his Crystal Lake middle school.

BJ Johnson, 26, a USA National Swim Team member, flew in to Chicago on Sunday morning from his home in California just to tell Omid Babakhani that his “swim family” from across the country supports him in his recovery and encourages his return to swim.

“We all wish you the best,” Johnson said.

February's assault resulted in shattering both of Omid's clavicles. Another student was charged with aggravated battery and committing a hate crime in the assault.

The soft-spoken Omid has since undergone a painful surgery involving the placement of two titanium plates held in place by six screws on each clavicle.

“I came here to tell you to not give up on what you are trying to do,” Johnson said to Omid prior to addressing the other swimmers and their families who attended the banquet.

Omid has since returned to school and is preparing to finish eighth grade and, with his doctor's encouragement, has returned to the swimming pool.

Johnson told him that though he has tremendous support from friends, family and fellow swimmers, what is “most important” in his recovery and future successes is that he continue to believe in himself.

“This (attack) is a blip in the road and not a detour to what you want,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who began swimming competitively at age 16, is now working toward his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Stanford University while swimming 20 hours a week. He plans on trying out for the 2016 Olympic swim team, he said.

He often speaks to groups about bullying and diversity. Though he has not been a victim of bullying, he has friends and teammates who have had to overcome bullying, or have needed encouragement in recovering from injuries and medical issues.

He encouraged all the young swimmers at the banquet to embrace and look out for one another.

“Most important, make sure you are always there for each other. Swimming is a family,” he said.

Johnson said the swim world includes swimmers from all different socioeconomic backgrounds, races and religions, but “in the pool none of that matters.”

Omid said he doesn't think about the “evil” that hurt him. Rather, he said, he focuses on all the good he has seen in the people around him during his recovery.

He doesn't dwell on the assault at Beardsley Middle School but rather thinks about the future, particularly trying out for the swim team at Crystal Lake Central High School.

“I try not to think about it,” he said. “If you look back, ... you're not living in the now.”

He was thrilled that Johnson took the time to come and meet him, he said.
“It was amazing,” he said while sitting with Johnson eating breakfast and talking about competitive swimming and technique. “I never thought this would happen. To meet a swimmer as accomplished as him, it's so amazing.”

Ben Babakhani, Omid's father, teared up often during the ceremony and said all of this warmth and support, including hundreds of letters of support from school-age children, has been “overwhelming.”

“Everybody has been so wonderful,” said Ben Babakhani. “The world is full of good people; it's just sometimes we need a reminder.”