The Karen Gaffney Foundation
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Trading places: a swimmer's story

August 1, 1999
The Sunday Oregonian

Karen Gaffney of Portland recently spoke to women athletes at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. Here is a condensation of her remarks.

I am honored to speak with you today. Your coaches believe that by hearing my story, you may be inspired to be better student-athletes here at Santa Clara. I hope they are right.

I am happy to share my story with you. But, I'm not looking for sympathy.... 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. I would love to be a student here at Santa Clara with my brother, Brian. And I would give anything to be on the swim team here too!

Although I look younger, I am 21 years old. I am 4--foot--10 and weigh 95 pounds.

I always have to be careful about my weight because I have dislocated hips. My dad taught me how to swim even before I could walk. He knew I would need the exercise to help make the rest of my body stronger to make up for my bad hips. Behind me, you can see a video of one of my swim workouts. I swim a little more than two miles a day, four to five times a week. I also work out on weights three or four times a week.

I have had more surgeries on my hips than I can count. The first time was when I was 3. Each time, I would have to recover in a full body cast. Each time I would have to learn to walk all over again. I would start in the pool and gradually make my way to solid ground. Summer after summer, this would occur--always on a schedule to get me ready to be back on the first day of school so I could keep up with my studies.

My right hip has turned out OK, but my left hip has never worked properly. So, today I walk slowly and with a bad limp. If you watch the film behind me, you can see my left leg just floats along with me when I swim. It doesn't slow me down in the water, but it doesn't help me either.

When I was 7 and 8 years old, I swam in the Oregon States Special Olympics. One year I won two gold medals at a state meet. When I was in sixth grade, I started swimming in a Catholic Youth Organization league with many of my classmates. I liked swimming on that team, because I was just as good as everyone else! Our free-style relay team won regularly. I enjoyed it because I belonged on the team. I was clearly one of the four best swimmers in my class, and the other girls knew it.

I was on the swim team in high school too, and I loved going to the meets with all the others. I earned my letter and got my letterman jacket! I didn't win any events at the high school meets. By then the other girls were working out as much as I was, and they were much better in the water. But I earned the points for my letter by never missing practice, always doing my regular workout, and by swimming the 500-yard free-style event, which earned points just for finishing.

It meant everything for me to be part of the swim team in high school. I didn't miss practices because it was the high point of my day. Otherwise, I would have to study for algebra, or chemistry or history. I would much rather swim. But more than that, I cherished being part of a team. I got a team swimsuit and cap. I rode on the team bus. The girls went out of their way to make me feel a part of the team.

At a swim meet I can't wear my hearing aids or my glasses. So the others needed to listen for me and tell me when my heat was being called. One of my teammates also needed to help me get up on the block at the start of the race.

A victory for me was to swim a good race. I stayed away from the backstroke. My best event was the 50-yard free style. I never won a heat in high school, but I usually came in third or fourth place in the heat. I always started last in the water, because I could not dive very far off the starting block. And I was also the slowest to turn, because my left leg is too weak for me to do flip-turns anymore. But I could catch up in the open water! I would love to have won a race at this level, but I had already won just by being included with the others. A good day for me was to be a participant without being noticed.

I am currently attending Portland Community College working on an associate degree and a certificate in early childhood education. I would like to work as a teacher's aide.

After I finish school, I plan to start swimming at an even higher level. My dream is to one day swim the English Channel. It will take a year of training in Portland while I get my mileage up to 35 to 40 miles per week.

After that I will go to France to train in the Channel where the water is warmer. I need to learn to navigate in open water. I need to get used to the salt water and the temperature. For several months, my training will consist of swimming for four hours at a time back and forth along the French shore until I am ready.

I hope I complete the swim. But, if I do, I would trade that very moment I would first touch the shore of Calais, France, with any one of you -for your worst day of practice- for your worst day of competition. You are so lucky to have so much talent to be here at Santa Clara. You have so much. I hope you know how lucky you are.

If you ever start to feel sorry for yourself, if you ever have thoughts of quitting, if you ever have thoughts of missing practice, I hope you will remember the story I have told you here today. Remember me, and know that there are many, many people like me, would trade places with you in a minute....

Karen Gaffney, who graduated last year from St. Mary's Academy in Portland, was born with Down syndrome. This text originated in Brainstorm magazine.

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