The Karen Gaffney Foundation
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Perseverance Meets Reality

By Katy Muldoon, The Oregonian

This swim-the-English-Channel business -- Barbara Gaffney had heard it before.  Frankly, she hoped it would go away.

Her husband, Jim, and daughter had talked about it for years as Karen grew up swimming in Special Olympics, for a youth team and for her high school.  But after consulting with swimmers who had attempted the notoriously rough 21-mile crossing from Dover, England to Calais, France, the Gaffneys decided it would be imprudent for their daughter to attempt the swim.

Despite her prowess in the pool, the channel's 60-degree water, stinging jellyfish, heavy shipping traffic, powerful currents and potentially high seas seemed too much for Karen Gaffney, just 4-foot-10 and lean at 95 pounds.  Besides no one with Down syndrome -- the chromosomal abnormality with which Karen was born -- ever has attempted the channel swim, according to the official record keepers.

But Barbara Gaffney agreed to listen when Kathryn Haslach suggested that Karen, now 23, might successfully swim the channel not solo but as part of a relay team.

"I think it's a wonderful goal - to swim the English Channel," says Haslach, a soft-spoken 40-year-old Northwest Portland small-business owner.  "I've had that passion in meI wanted to help her realize her goal."

Karen Gaffney struggles as she descends the steps to the 50-meter pool deep in the belly of Portland's Multnomah Athletic Club.  Her misshapen hips cause her knees to angle inward and feet to splay outward.  She grips the rail and continues down the stairway.

For her, the pool is far more comfortable than solid ground.  It's where she fought back against the poor muscle tone dealt her as a result of Down syndrome.  And it's where she rehabilitated her beat-up body after surgeries to repair dislocated hips at 3 1/2, 8, 12 and 13 years old.  The long red scars line up like swim lanes down each hip.

The pool is where Gaffney, as a child and teen-ager, found a measure of acceptance otherwise scarce for a disabled youngster in the classroom or on the playground.

In high school at St. Mary's Academy, Gaffney felt more insider than outsider-at least in the pool.  She wore the team swimsuit, rode the team bus and smiled for the team picture.  Because she can't wear her hearing aids or glasses in the water, her teammates would tell her when her heat was called.  Because her bad hips made it tough for her to climb, they'd help her onto the starting blocks.

Gaffney didn't win races, but she seldom lost them.  She felt strong in the water.  Independent.  Capable.  And for a change, not so different.  She belonged.

In the pool, where instructors and coaches helped her adjust her swimming style to make the most of a strong upper body and weak lower body, Gaffney looks at home.  Lap after lap, her arms slap and pull at the water.  Her head pushes through it like a locomotive.

Kathryn Haslach had watched her there, in the athletic club pool.  But until she picked up the newspaper on August 1, 1999, Haslach didn't know that she and Karen Gaffney shared more than an affinity for chlorine.

That day, The Oregonian reprinted a speech that Gaffney had given to athletes at Santa Clara University in California, her parents' alma mater.  In a talk similar to inspirational speeches Gaffney gives nationwide as part of the nonprofit Karen Gaffney Foundation, she spoke about practice and perseverance, about goal setting and reaching for dreams.  Hers, she said, was to swim the English Channel.

At the pool, Haslach introduced herself.

"I explained that I had swum a solo and a relay, and that I wanted to congratulate her on her goal," Haslach remembers.  "I asked if she'd like to do a relay.  I offered to show her my videos.  She was very excited. She was definitely interested.  I think it was her first grasp of reality."

Kathryn Haslach's solo swim across the English Channel ended eight hours and 43 minutes after it began.  She was two-thirds of the way across the 21-mile stretch when a storm transformed calm water into eight-foot swells.

Waves crashed over her head.  The seas grew so rough that those on the pilot boat accompanying her could no longer pass her the heated liquids she needed to sustain her body temperature and energy.  As hypothermia set in, they pulled her from the water.  The date was July 25,1992.

Three days later, Haslach completed the channel swim as part of a relay team.  She figured, then, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime feat.

Her friend and swimming mentor, Gail McCormick, though never ruled out the possibility of another channel swim.

McCormick, now a 45-year-old Southwest Portland writer, left the beach in Dover on August 4, 1979.  The air was a brisk 60 degrees, the choppy water 1 degree colder.  With her then-boyfriend and now-husband, restaurateur, Bill McCormick, in the pilot boat, she swam until the French shore was in sight just 1 1/2 miles away.  She kept it for two more hours.  Still France was 1 1/2 miles away.

The tide had changed.  If she wanted to make progress, she'd have to swim in place four more hours until it changed again.  The boat pilot, who saw she was exhausted and disoriented, called the shot: He touched her, which in the ultrastrict channel swimming rulebook disqualified her from an official finish.  She climbed into the boat, wrapped in a blanket and returned to England.

About 20 years later, her friend Kathryn Haslach called.  Interested, she asked in a relay?

"How would you like to go to France?" Gail McCormick asked her brother, Marc Bowen, a 48-year-old film and video producer.

"Sure," he said.

"Well, " McCormick countered, "you'll have to swim."

Similar queries made the rounds of family and friends, of masters swimmers and triathletes from Portland to Bend.  Soon, 13 swimmers had agreed to help Karen Gaffney swim the English Channel in two six-member teams, plus two alternates.

Training commenced.  So did fundraising.

When McCormick learned about Gaffney's foundation, dedicated to educating parents, physicians, teachers and the public about overcoming the challenges of Down syndrome, she thought: Why not make the channel swim a fund-raiser for Gaffney's third motivational video, "Profiles in Achievement," which will feature Gaffney's story, among others?

With help from a long list of Oregon companies, former Olympic swimmers such as Don Schollander, Matt Biondi, and Donna deVarona, ex-Trail Blazer Maurice Lucas, and others, the team has raised $55,000 toward its $90,000 goal.

Black cables snake across a dark carpet.  Painfully bright lights illuminate a corporate training room downtown on an unseasonably dark, drizzly summer morning.  A six-man video crew sets up monitors, tripods and cameras that they train on Karen Gaffney.

Silently, she mouths the words from her script for perhaps the 100th time.

"Ready to roll?" asks Marc Bowen video producer and one of the swimmers on Team Gaffney.  "Quiet in the room.  Roll."

And Gaffney does.

"My name is Karen Gaffney," she says, clasping her hands together.  "I have Down syndrome.  And every day, thousands of students like me come into classrooms like yours looking for knowledge, for guidance, and most of all, looking for acceptance."

Standing center stage, dressed in a pale yellow Ralph Lauren sweater, her voice calm, her eyes trained on her audience, Gaffney appears as polished as her meticulously manicured ruby-colored fingernails.

"Yes, we are different.  Yes, we have special needs," Gaffney tells the Portland State University education students, who not only are her audience this day, but also serve as extras in her newest videotape, which is aimed at teachers and due out this fall.

"But we also are filled with potential and abilities and dreams that were never thought possible, even a few years ago."

The teachers-in-training look on, mesmerized during the two-hour videotaping session.  Gaffney, who through her foundation gave more than two dozen motivational talks last year to groups from Maine to Oregon, wows them.

On cue, several ask scripted questions for the videotape:  "What sort of adjustments did your teachers have to make?" "Did your teachers grade you differently than other students?"  "How could teachers have helped more?"

Bowen wraps up the day's filming, praises Gaffney's smooth delivery and thanks the Portland State students for taking part.

But they haven't had enough.  Hands shoot up around the room.  Gaffney, graciously points and nods: "How much have you trained?" asks one student.  "How long will it take you to swim the channel?" questions another.  "The channel is such a big accomplishment, what will you do for an encore?" a third wonders.

She answers: All her lifeTwelve to 14 hours, with help from her friends Find a job as a teacher's aide for students with special needs Use the degree she earned last month from Portland Community CollegeLive on her ownmake friendsMake a difference

Gaffney tells them that the channel swim, planned for next week, isn't the most important thing in her life.  But it's another opportunity, she says, "to show people that I can."

The Gaffney Relay Team

The Goal:  By swimming a relay across the 21-mile-wide English Channel this month, members of Team Gaffney hope to raise awareness about the potential of people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.  They also are raising money for the nonprofit Karen Gaffney Foundation, which, through videotapes and speaking engagements, champions full, productive and inclusive lives for the disabled.

Information:  To learn more, contact the Karen Gaffney Foundation.  815 NW 13th Ave, Suite C, Portland, OR 97209; call 503-973-5130; or look on the web at

The Swimmers

Karen Gaffney:  The 23-year-old Portland woman last month graduated from Portland Community College with an associate of science degree and a certificate qualifying her to work as a teacher's aide.  She hopes to work in an early intervention program.  Gaffney, who has Down syndrome, is president of the Karen Gaffney Foundation.

Kathryn Haslach:  A 40-year-old mother of two, she owns and operates Sewsoft, a company that makes baby blankets.  In 1992, she attempted a solo swim across the English Channel and completed a relay.  When she heard that Gaffney wanted to swim the channel, she suggested assembling a relay team.

Tim Haslach:  Kathryn's husband, also 40, is a partner in Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt, a Portland law firm.  He was an Oregon State High School swim champ in 1979 and swam for the US Naval Academy.  The Haslach's live in Northwest Portland.

Gail McCormick:  A writer and marathon runner, McCormick, 45, attempted an English Channel swim when she was 23.  When the French shore was in sight, the tide changed and she was unable to finish.  It was McCormick's idea to turn the Team Gaffney relay into a fund-raising event.

Sara Quan:  One of the nation's top open-water swimmers in her age group, Quan, 28, is a certified personal trainer, swim coach and skiing instructor.  She lives in Bend and trains with Central Oregon Masters Aquatics.

Tom Landis:  Landis, 59, is a former teacher and semiretired rancher and outfitter guide.  He returned to competitive swimming at age 55; last year, he placed fourth in the world in the 1,500-meter freestyle for his age group.

Mike Tennant:  A real estate developer in Bend, Tennant swam for Portland State University.  Now, the 48- year-old sprinter trains with a masters group at Juniper Pool in Bend.

Joe Tennant:  Mike's 49-year-old brother is president of Pacific Marine Leasing in Portland.  He grew up swimming at the now defunct Aero Club in downtown Portland and competed for Georgetown University.

Marc Bowen:  A 48-year-old film and video producer from Southwest Portland, he and his sister Gail McCormick were lifeguards on the Oregon Coast when they were in college.  He's helping Karen Gaffney produce her second video, which is aimed at helping teachers prepare to instruct children with learning disabilities.

Kelsey Bowen:  Marc Bowen's daughter, she is a lifeguard at the pool at Wilson High School, where she will be a junior next fall.  Kelsey will turn 16 today.

Laura Schob:  She grew up swimming on a summer league team in Lakeview and coached a swim team when she was a student at Oregon State University.  Now, the 42- year- -old middle school teacher trains with other masters swimmers in Bend, where she lives.

Lindy Mount:  A triathlete and member of an adventure racing team, Mount, 41, is a Portland Community College student who plans to be a personal trainer.  She and her twin 11-year-old boys live in Southwest Portland.

Alternates:  Brian Gaffney, Karen's 21-year-old brother; Camillo Bruce, a Los Angeles college student.

English Channel Swim

Who:  Team Gaffney - 12 Oregonians, split into two relay teams - is named for Karen Gaffney, a 23-year-old Portlander with Down syndrome.  According to official record keepers, Gaffney will be the first swimmer with Down syndrome to attempt the crossing.

Dates:  July 23, 24, 25, or 26, depending on weather.

Start:  At Shakespeare's Cliff, between Folkestone and Dover, England.

Finish:  They will aim for Calais, France.

Distance:  21 miles.

Estimated time:  12 to 14 hours


National Down Syndrome Congress:  The chief advocacy organization for those with Down syndrome and their families,

National Association for Down Syndrome:  Works to foster understanding and acceptance of people with Down syndrome,

National Down Syndrome Society:  Comprehensive information source,

The ARC of the United States:  Works through education, research and advocacy to improve life for people who are mentally disabled,

Karen Gaffney Foundation:  Champions full inclusion in families, schools, communities, and the workplace for those with Down syndrome and other learning disabilities,

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