The Karen Gaffney Foundation
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The Channel Challenge

By Jett Nilprabhassorn, The Winged M Magazine

With the help of 10 fellow MAC members and other friends, Karen Gaffney hopes to be the first person with Down syndrome to successfully swim the English Channel.

One high school diploma -- check
One associates of science degree -- check
Two Special Olympic gold medals -- check

Look at the list once and check it again, but Karen Gaffney will tell you that something is still missing from her list of things to do.

Gaffney, a MAC member who was born with Down syndrome, is embarking on a challenge she says will be the greatest accomplishment in her 23 years of life. This month, Gaffney challenges the harsh waters of the English Channel as she and two relay teams of mostly MAC swimmers try to navigate themselves from the shores of England to France. If successful, Gaffney becomes the first individual with Down syndrome to complete the swim.

"I think this will be the biggest thing that I've ever done in my life," Gaffney says. "It feels great to be on a team with MAC members. I feel really included. I know that they have a lot of confidence in me that I can do this. And, I have a lot of confidence in myself too. I really feel like this is something that I want to accomplish in life."

Gaffney says swimming the channel has been a longtime goal of hers. However, the upcoming swim wouldn't be possible if she hadn't mentioned it in a 1999 speech delivered to a group of women athletes at Santa Clara University. She told the athletes about her life, adding that she wanted to swim the channel -- at the time thinking she would attempt it solo. Her speech was later printed in The Oregonian and caught the eye of MAC member Kathryn Haslach.

Haslach says she was inspired by Gaffney's speech and wanted to offer her skills and knowledge to help Gaffney cross the channel -- but as a relay team.

"I think this will be a wonderful experience for Karen for her to be able to talk about this in her lectures," Haslach says. "Karen's going to be out there yelling for us as much as we are going to be supporting her. It's going to be a total team effort."

Having attempted a solo swim across the channel in July 1992, Haslach knows first-hand the dangers of attempting the feat solo. Haslach was forced to cut her swim short when she was pulled from the water with hypothermia. Haslach did manage to cross the channel three days later as part of a relay team.

"Hopefully, I can provide a realistic perspective of what it is like to swim in open water," Haslach says.

Under the leadership of Haslach and MAC member Gail McCormick, who attempted the swim in 1979, Team Gaffney was formed. Team Gaffney consists of two relay teams both with a roster of six swimmers and an alternate. Of the 14 participants, 11 are MAC members. Teams cannot exceed six swimmers according to a regulation by the Channel Swimming Association, the organization that officially records channel crossings.

Team Gaffney is made up of families and friends with ages ranging from 16 years old to 57 years old. Students, a teacher, an attorney and a hodgepodge of others make up the dynamics of Team Gaffney. Despite the diversity of the group, the team is physically capable of accomplishing the swim. Experiences include a former Navy swimmer, a triathlete, avid open - water swimmers, a competitive high school swimmer and more. While the team may be physically capable of completing the swim, Haslach reminds them that it won't be a cakewalk.

"It's going to be one hour of total hell," Haslach says. "It's going to be the longest hour of their lives and the quickest five hours on the boat. But it's going to be a lifetime experience and a lot of fun."

The swim starts at Shakespeare's Cliffs near Dover, England, and the swimmers aim to finish near the shores of Calais, France. Team Gaffney is scheduled to depart for London Saturday, July 21with the swim, depending on weather, to occur sometime between July 24-27.

During the challenge, swimmers take one- hour shifts in the channel with a boat following close at hand to drop off the next person. Each swimmer is expected to swim at least twice through the rotation. Haslach says she expects the swim to take approximately 13 to 14 hours.

While the summer months are ideal for swimming the channel, the water temperatures remain chilly at 59 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit. On top of that, Channel Swimming Association rules only allow "standard swimsuits, which give no technical advantage buoyancy or heat retention." The rule follows a standard set by Captain Matthew Webb, the first recorded person to swim the channel in 1875. He wore only his swim trunks during the crossing. Swimmers are also not allowed to touch another human being while swimming. Food and drinks are exchanged by using a pole.

While cold water temperatures remain to be an obstacle, stinging jellyfish, swift currents and high waves also stand in the way. The shortest distance from England to France is about 21 miles; however water currents can make swimmers drift and their swimming distances longer. In fact, during McCormick's 1979 attempt tides kept her swimming in the same place for almost two hours. Having already swum for about 11 hours and being one-and-a-half miles from France, McCormick's coach pulled her out of the water because of fatigue and the threat of hypothermia.

Understanding the challenge and risks of the swim, each team member has worked hard on his or her individual training schedules. Many of the swimmers have taken advantage of the club's afternoon masters swim sessions. The team has also met on several occasions to do open-water swims in the Columbia River, Hagg Lake in Forest Grove and Coffinberry Lake in Gearhart. Some have swum in the San Francisco Bay Aquatic Park, an ideal training site for cold, salty and choppy water.

Gaffney's personal training schedule includes swimming 10 to 12 hours a week, including about one hour of an open- water swim. She does most of her swims and weight training at MAC. While training can cause burnout for athletes, Gaffney says, she has plenty of support to keep her going.

"My parents and teammates keep me motivated," Gaffney says. "They keep pushing me and give me the urge to keep on going. I don't want to disappoint them."

While Gaffney's teammates are her motivation, the feeling is reciprocal. Gaffney's story in itself is an inspirational to many.

"She's an amazing person," Haslach says. "She always has a positive attitude. She works out twice a day and she's very involved in the community. I know she can make it."

Standing at 4-foot-10 and weighing 95 pounds, Gaffney says she has to be careful with her weight because of her dislocated hips, which have caused her to limp a bit. She's had more surgeries on her hips than she can count, she says, the first one being when she was three years old. Gaffney's father, Jim, taught her how to swim before she even learned how to walk. Swimming helped strengthen Gaffney's body to compensate for her hips. In return, swimming led Gaffney to two Oregon State Special Olympic gold medals, a letter on the St. Mary's High School swim team and now a chance swimming the English Channel.

Although swimming the English Channel has been a longtime goal of Gaffney's, she isn't only doing it for herself but for individuals who live with disabilities.

"I want to create a lot of awareness about people with disabilities and our abilities to learn and grow and to be more included in the classroom, the workplace and the community," says Gaffney.

The message is the same for her organization, the Karen Gaffney Foundation. Through her organization, Gaffney makes a number of personal appearances, delivers motivational speeches and offers resource materials. The upcoming swim is an opportunity for her foundation, Gaffney says, to raise money for the production of a video that highlights accomplishments by individuals with disabilities.

With 21 miles separating Team Gaffney from the coast of England to France, completing the swim would be a great accomplishment. However, in the eyes of Team Gaffney, the experiences leading up to the event are achievements in themselves.

"It's already been a success for Karen no matter what the outcome because she's fulfilling her dream and everybody's on the relay team," Haslach says. "It's all about fulfilling dreams."

The channel swim is just a little ways away and Gaffney may have another item to check off her list of things to do. However, her list doesn't end there. Having graduated from Portland Community College in June, Gaffney is certified to be a teacher's aide. She's says she hopes to land a job as an aide in a Portland area school. She also says she wants to someday live on her own.

While Gaffney's life story may be inspirational, she's not looking for any sympathy for her condition. She says she just tries everyday to make the best of who she is

"Keep going on with your life," Gaffney says, advising all individuals. "Don't let yourself down. Just try to make a difference in other people's lives and you can do the same yourself."

For more information about Gaffney, her foundation and Team Gaffney's swim, visit

Team Gaffney

Eleven MAC members, including Karen Gaffney, and three other swimmers head to England this month where they attempt to swim across the English Channel as two relay teams for Team Gaffney.

The above picture includes 13 of 14 swimmers during their open water swim on the Columbia River in August. Below are brief descriptions of each swimmer, their training and reasons for taking on this challenge. Individuals with an asterisk (*) after their name are not MAC members.

1) Laura Schob*

A 42- year old sixth -grade teacher from Bend, Schob prepares for the English Channel venture by taking a cold shower after every swim and training in 60- degree water once a week to acclimate her body to what she might face. In June, she raced a 5K pool swim to hone her distance.

Why take on this challenge?

"Being a member of Team Gaffney puts to use my swimming abilities for a cause I very much believe in- the support of Karen Gaffney. Karen is a model for all people. In the face of physical disabilities, she is still able to pursue athletics and succeed. I want to be apart of spreading the message that all of us can stretch ourselves past the mental walls we are so readily built."

2) Lindy Mount

In addition to training for the upcoming challenge, Mount manages to balance the busy life of motherhood and being a student. She currently studies in the fitness technology program at Portland Community College and is also an active swimmer and a triathlete. When she completes her studies, she plans to add masters swimming at MAC to her training.

Why take on this challenge?

"I'm studying to be a personal trainer with an emphasis on elderly and special populations. I watched Karen from afar and I wanted to do this when it was offered to me. Because of her goals of wanting to let people know of what individuals with limitations can do, the swim is really important to me and I believe in it.

3) Tom Landis

Landis is semi-retired. He's been a rancher, raising llamas for many years and recently sold his outfitter/guide business, Oregon Llamas. In that capacity he served as a mountain guide for 20 years. Despite having ample experiences swimming in cold oceans, he says he hates cold water, which will be his biggest challenge. Boredom during the swim will also be a challenge. Landis swims three days a week and recently swam in the masters nationals and finished in the top 10 in his age group in six events.

Why take on this challenge?

"I decided to take part in this because I like the adventure of doing new things, the challenge to do something to further the cause we are promoting."

4) Sara Quan

Quan is a long-distance member of MAC and currently lives in Bend. She grew up in Portland and swam at MAC from age 6-18. She is a personal trainer in Bend, working with swimming, water exercise cross country skiing, ski conditioning and circuit training. Quan has trained for this event since October. She swims at least five days a week, lifts weights and does cross training. She is confident in her strength and endurance to get her through the challenge.

Why take on this challenge?

"I decided to take part in this challenge because it is just that - a challenge. I love to swim in the open water and I couldn't say no to the opportunity."

5) Gail McCormick

McCormick attempted a solo swim of the channel in 1979, but was pulled out of the water about one-and-a-half miles from France. She swum for about 11 miles when a tide kept her swimming in the same place for almost two hours.

McCormick served as Kathryn Haslach's mentor during Haslach's 1992 attempt of crossing the channel solo. McCormick works as a writer and is also the sister of teammate Marc Bowen.

6) Joe Tennant

Tennant has been a MAC member for 20 years. At MAC he participates in Early Birds activities, squash, walking, and does Stairmaster. He swims several days a week at MAC and has done several open water swims to prepare for this event. He is the president of Pacific Marine Leasing.

Why take on this challenge?

"I was notified by Kathryn Haslach that there was a group doing this and when I heard what the cause was for, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it."

7) Brian Gaffney

Gaffney serves as one of the two alternate swimmers on Team Gaffney. Should any swimmer not be able to take the plunge prior to the start of the swim, Gaffney will fill his or her spot. He is preparing to transfer to Portland State University for classes in the fall. He currently works full time at Copeland's Sports. Gaffney's biggest challenge, he says, is not to get seasick.

Why take on this challenge?

"My sister asked me to take part in this and I thought it would be fun."

8) Karen Gaffney

Swimming the English Channel will be Gaffney's greatest accomplishment, she says. She will be the first individual with Down syndrome to successfully swim the channel.

Why take on this challenge?

"I want to create a lot of awareness about people with disabilities and our abilities to learn and grow and to be more included in the classroom, the workplace and the community."

9) Mike Tennant

Tennant is the brother of Team Gaffney teammate, Joe Tennant. Mike lives in Bend and is a real estate developer.

10) Kathryn Haslach

Haslach was the first to approach Gaffney with the idea of crossing the channel as a relay team. She attempted a solo crossing of the channel in 1992 but was pulled out of the water with hypothermia. Three days later she completed the swim as a part of a relay team. She currently swims 4,000 to 5,000 yards three times a week to train for the upcoming challenge. Haslach owns a business called Sew Soft, which makes baby blankets. She is married to Team Gaffney teammate Tim Haslach.

11) Tim Haslach

Tim was an age group and senior swimmer for MAC from 1974-1979 before moving to college out of state. He rejoined MAC when he married Kathryn in 19993. He swims in the masters swimming program at MAC and has swum in rivers and lakes in and around Portland to train for the event. He is an attorney with Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt where he practices business and intellectual law.

Why take on this challenge?

"I thought that it sounded like a worthy cause, a fun trip and would provide me with great motivation to get back into swimming after 20 years of retirement."

12) Marc Bowen

Bowen is a producer/director of film and video for his production company, Marc Bowen Productions. He has been a MAC member since the mid-1980s and started training with the masters swimming program when he committed to Team Gaffney. With cold temperatures being Bowen's greatest challenge, he has also done some cold water swims to prepare for the channel. He is the father of Team Gaffney teammate, Kelsey Bowen.

Why take on this challenge?

"My sister, Gail McCormick, last year asked me if Kelsey and I might want to go to France in July. Of course I said 'sure.' She then told me the catch, 'You have to swim from the cliffs of Dover to Calais.' What an opportunity to do something with my daughter, and show up my sister. Besides I thought it might be a good idea to get into shape again."

13) Kelsey Bowen

Kelsey turns 16 years old the day she leaves for London. A junior at Wilson High School, she competes on the varsity team and during the summer competes on Wilson's summer swim team. She is a lifeguard and teaches swimming lessons at Wilson and Southwest Community Center at Gabriel Park. In training for the challenge, Bowen swims one to two hours a day for five to six days a week. She also does cross training. The biggest challenge, she says, are jellyfish and having enough stamina to swim a third leg if needed.

Why take on this challenge?

"I love swimming, traveling, and volunteering in the community. This experience is enabling me to do all three at once. Although, I don't know if you'd include England and France as being in the community."

14) Camilo Bruce (not pictured)

A MAC member prior to going to college, Bruce used to swim for the club. Having known the Gaffneys for about six years, Brian Gaffney asked Bruce to join the swim team. Like Brian, Bruce's position is as an alternate for the team. He is a senior at the University of Southern California where he is studying biomedical engineering. In June, Bruce left for Europe where he is swimming the Mediterranean in addition to his regular training. The biggest challenge he says is the fear of not knowing what is below him during open water swims.

Why take on this challenge?

"When Brian asked me if I wanted to do it, I immediately agreed, knowing that this was a great opportunity. I've known Karen for a while now and was amazed at the task that she was going to try to overcome. I feel honored to be included in this achievement."

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