The Karen Gaffney Foundation
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English Channel Vanquished

By Katy Muldoon, The Oregonian

CALAIS, FRANCE - Two teams of Oregon swimmers toughed out 61-degree water, stinging jellyfish, waves crashing over their heads and a pitch black night to swim a relay across the English Channel.

Collectively known as Team Gaffney, they reached the French shoreline just past midnight Monday, a little after 4 p.m. Oregonian time.  It took the six-member teams a little more than 14 hours, two hours longer than they had hoped for.

The team is named for swimmer Karen Gaffney, 23, of Portland, who became the first athlete with Down syndrome to successfully complete the channel swim.

Gaffney swam two one-hour legs of the relay.  And though she appeared to struggle some in the water, seldom finding her usual strong, methodical stroke, Gaffney completed each of her legs and helped the team make progress on its way to France.

When the final swimmers -- Tim Haslach, a Portland attorney, and Kelsey Bowen, a Wilson High School student -- climbed ashore at two different points south of Calais, France, cheers erupted from their teammates aboard a fishing vessel and pleasure cruiser.

The 21 miles of the English Channel that flow between Dover, England, and Calais are well known as a notoriously difficult stretch for swimmers, because of swift currents, traditionally burly, blustery seas and heavy shipping traffic.  During most channel swims, athletes swim substantially farther than the 21 miles because currents pull them north and south as the tides change thorough out the day and night.

The channel shows its docile side only for special occasions.  For most of the day, it felt like one.

Under sunny skis and atop gently undulating seas, Team Gaffney arrived at Shakespeare's Cliff, between Dover and Folkestone, England, about 10 a.m. Monday.  Many team members had arrived in Dover from Portland only 16 hours earlier.  Most looked sleep-deprived.

Sara Quan, a nationally ranked open-water swimmer from Bend, was first in the water departing the beach about 10:04 a.m. Duncan Taylor, secretary of the Channel Swimming Association, blew the air horn on his boat eight times to cheer on Quan and the rest of the swimmers.

From the second boat, Mike Tennant, also of Bend, left the beach about five minutes later.

An hour later, Tom Landis of Camp Sherman dove in the water and passed Quan, who returned to the boat; several minutes after that, Laura Schob, a Bend school teacher, jumped in and passed Tennant, who returned to the boat.

And so it went on each boat every hour: the new swimmers powering forward, those just finishing easing off, climbing aboard, drying off and warming up.

Beyond the unique athletic challenge, the larger purpose of the swimmer's effort was to raise money for an upcoming educational video featuring Gaffney.  Her nonprofit organization, called the Karen Gaffney foundation works for the full inclusion in society of those with disabilities, including Down syndrome, the chromosomal abnormality with which Gaffney was born.

Official observers from the Channel Swimming Association were aboard each boat to monitor whether the Oregonians followed the association's strict rules, which have evolved since the first known successful channel swim in 1875.

Karen Gaffney's first hour-long swim started a little after 2 p.m. in the middle of the busy south bound shipping lane.  Six freighters and tankers were in sight.  Gaffney, whose father, Jim, first put her in a pool when she was 9 months old, had to swim through kelp beds and ocean swells that crashed over her head.  Gaffney was the focus of a series of stories last week in The Oregonian.

She spent the hours between the afternoon swim and the leg that began a little after 8 p.m. warming up her 95-pound body and sleeping.

Though conditions grew choppy and windy when the sun went down, the team lucked out through most of the day with seas so calm the effort barely resembled a swim in the channel and with tides that put swimmers in a favorite spot to finish.

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