The Karen Gaffney Foundation
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A Swimmer's Journey

By Katy Muldoon, The Oregonian

A glassy 50-meter pool turns choppy as Karen Gaffney powers through the water.  Her arms pull a strong stroke.  Her hips undulate, moving up and down in a dolphin like motion, rather than rotating side-to-side, as most free stylers hips do.  Her head pops up for breath, then returns to a turquoise world.

"Push, Karen! Push!

"Go, Karen! Go!"

Irvyn Segal, pacing Gaffney from the pool deck at the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, sweeps his left arm forward as he walks -- visual motivation to go with the verbal.

An exercise physiologist and swim coach, Segal glances at the Ironman stopwatch on his wrist: 3 minutes, 29.46 seconds.

"It was a good warm-up," he tells Gaffney as she catches her breath at the end of the lane.  "Let's see how low you can go today.  Let's see if we can get it under 3.29."

Gaffney nods.  At 23, she is preparing to swim a relay with 11 other Oregonians across the notoriously surly English Channel next week.  She adjusts her goggles and prepares for the next 200-yard leg in this all-business 2,000-yard training session.

"Ready? Up!" Segal roars.

"Push, Karen! Push!"

Karen Gaffney's mother, Barbara, doesn't remember having to push all that hard Nov. 3, 1977, the day her daughter entered the world at about 1 p.m. at O' Connor Hospital in Santa Clara, Calif.

She went to work at Intel early that day, three weeks before her baby was due and a couple classes shy of finishing the childbirth course she was taking with her husband, Jim.  A human resources manager, her unsavory task that morning was to tell a work group that the company was downsizing and they would be reassigned.

"I was using my Intel watch and timing these pains," Barbara Gaffney says.  "I had no idea what they were."

A colleague did.

"She made me get in the car and go to the doctor," Gaffney says.  "The doctor sent me straight to the hospital.  She was born within an hour."

Gaffney, now 52, laughingly explains: "She was my first one.  You don't know anything."

Karen Elizabeth Gaffney weighed 7 pounds even.  She let out the howl of a healthy newborn before a nurse gave her mother a peek.

"They handed her to me for a minute," Barbara Gaffney says.  "I got to look at her a little bit.  Then they were just anxious to whip her away."

In the hours that followed, doctors and nurses lowered their eyes around Gaffney. Their voices too.

"I thought I should have had her with me the whole time," Gaffney remembers.  "Then, when I would ask, they said.  'She's kind of cold.  We're trying to warm her.'  Or 'she's having trouble sucking.  We're feeding her with a bottle.'"

Jim Gaffney had no idea he was a father until early that evening.  He spent that Thursday locked away with other young professionals plowing through day two of the three-day certified public exam.  When he got home, his sister-in-law was waiting with happy news.

He asked if the baby was a boy or a girl.  Get to the hospital she told him.  You'll find out there.

When he arrived at the hospital, Jim was so elated, Barbara Gaffney remembers, that she elected not to share her fears right away.  She didn't want to burst his bubble.  And she didn't want him worrying about their newborn the next day, the final day of his CPA exam.

She let him savor the sweetness of fatherhood first.

Karen Gaffney takes off fast.  In a plain black suit, with a bright blue swim cap corralling her blond hair, she races through the first two laps of each set, then settles into a slower rhythm.

Segal, her coach, tells her the first two look good, but she needs to accelerate with each pool length she swims.

Segal and Sean Taylor, the Multnomah Athletic Club's masters swim coach, have worked with Gaffney all year.  She swims for an hour each morning, adds a noon swim with the masters twice a week and fits in open- water workouts when she can on the Columbia or Nehalem rivers.  Add to that three sessions a week in the weight room and some cycling to boost her aerobic capacity and Gaffney feels plenty fit for the challenge of the English Channel.

"She's much more focused," Segal says, "since setting that goal."

But Segal knows - perhaps better than Gaffney can comprehend - that the 21-mile-wide channel is to swimmers what Mount Everest is to climbers.  The channel, though, offers neither parkas to warm its challengers, nor Sherpas to guide them.

Training, therefore, aims to give Gaffney the endurance she'll require to swim two or three one-hour legs in 60-degree water, the strength she'll want to battle wind and waves, and the speed she'll need in order to pull herself through the water faster than the current.

The days workout bodes well.  She cuts her 200-yard time from 3.29:46 to 3.25:10.

"Super job, Karen," Segal says.

He bends at the waist and reaches an arm toward the water.  Gaffney, 4-foot-10 and 95 pounds, stretches her small palm toward his.

High five.

The nurses told Barbara Gaffney to stay in bed.  If you need anything, or want to get up, they said, just call.

It was Friday morning, the day after she had given birth to her first child, and curiosity got the better of her.

"I was really just trying to figure out what was going on," Gaffney says.

Without help, she got out of bed and found her way to the nursery.  Peering through a window, Gaffney watched a nurse bathe her tiny daughter.  The nurse looked up.  Their eyes met.

"I can read people," Gaffney says.  "And the way she looked at me told me that she knew something wasn't quite right -- and that I probably knew, too."

Later that morning, a doctor put it bluntly: She will be retarded," he told Gaffney. 

Her daughter had a chromosomal abnormality called Down syndrome that is commonly associated with developmental delays, slowed growth, vision and hearing loss, congenital heart disease, gastrointestinal and orthopedic problems, among other difficulties.

"When the doctor was saying the words to me," Gaffney remembers.  "I was thinking if I could reach out and take his words and put them back in his mouth until I can figure out how to change this situationto not have this reality yet until I have a solution.

"And at the same time I was thinking: 'What isn't she doing at 20 hours old that other babies are doing?  Where does she need to be?  How do we help her?  How do we close the gap?'"

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