The Karen Gaffney Foundation
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Sunday, August 27, 2000
Greg Jayne, Columbian sports editor

Karen Gaffney has Down Syndrome. She is 4-foot-10 and 95 pounds. She walks with a pronounced limp, and she has undergone more surgeries on her hips than she can count.

But she is an athlete.

As certainly as Michael Jordan or Alex Rodriguez or Marion Jones is an athlete, so is Gaffney.

Tired of jocks? Tired of overpaid, overhyped, self-important people dominating the sports we watch?

Then spend a few moments with Gaffney. Listen to her words. Feel the passion in them as she recounts her days on the swim team at St. Mary's Academy in Portland.

"A victory for me was to swim a good race," the 22-year-old Portland woman said. "I would have loved to have won a race at that level, but I had already won just by being included with the others."

Gaffney delivered those words last year during a speech at the national convention of the Association for Retarded Citizens. She does a lot of public speaking, sharing a message of hope and inspiration and common sense.

Some of the words in this column are from Gaffney's speeches. Some are from interviews at the Portland home of her parents, Jim and Barb. But they all are Gaffney's, and they all are worth hearing.

"I'm not looking for sympathy," she told athletes at Santa Clara University. "I don't feel sorry for myself. I just try each day to make the best of how I am. That doesn't mean I wouldn't like to be where you are, though.

"If you ever start to feel sorry for yourself, if you ever have thoughts of quitting, if you ever have thoughts of missing practice . . . remember me, and know that there are many, many people like me who would trade places with you in a minute."

Gaffney earned a varsity letter at St. Mary's. She earned it by competing in the 500 meters and never missing practice.

She also graduated while studying the regular curriculum, and now is close to earning an associate's degree from Portland Community College.

And, somewhere along the way, she developed an attitude that should be bottled and sold.

"I know I look differently than you; I know I talk differently than you do; I know I walk differently than you, and I may hear differently, because I wear hearing aids in both ears," Gaffney said when asked how people perceive her. "But I will explain it.

"When I talk about it, they understand. But when they first look at me, I don't think they do."

Don't you wish that Ken Griffey Jr. could meet Gaffney? Or Brian Grant? Or any other athlete who has bristled under the slightest criticism or claimed it's "not about the money?"

Don't you wish that all athletes remembered that the quest to better yourself is the only meaningful competition?

"It meant everything for me to be part of the swim team in high school," Gaffney said. "I didn't miss practices because it was the high point of my day."

Gaffney still is practicing. She is part of a relay team that is preparing to swim across the English Channel next July.

Team members practice several times a week in the Columbia River, taking about an hour to swim three miles downstream to the Interstate 5 bridge.

For Gaffney, the journey is a natural one.

She started in the water long before she could walk, as part of an early intervention program to combat the Down Syndrome. Each time she would undergo hip surgery, the process would begin anew.

"I would start in the pool and gradually make my way to solid ground," she said.

Because of her degenerating hips, Gaffney swims with little help from her legs, leaving her shoulders and arms to do all the work.

"You can talk about it all day long, but you've got to see it," Jim Gaffney said. "She's so powerful in the water.

"She swims faster than she walks. She walks with a bad limp; she couldn't walk 3 miles in an hour."

But speed isn't an issue for Gaffney. Neither is winning. The only issues are perseverence and opportunity and the daily quest for improvement.

"Courage doesn't always roar," reads one of Gaffney's favorite sayings. "Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow' "

Sounds like a pretty good definition of a true athlete.

Greg Jayne is Sports editor for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-759-8059; by mail at P.O. Box 180, Vancouver, 98666; or online at

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