Imagine the Possibilites
Starlight Parade Grand Marshall Karen Gaffney Breaks Barriers with English Channel Swim
By Bridget Barton and Jim Gaffney


When it comes to his daughter Karen Gaffney, 2002 Grand Marshall of the Rose Festival Starlight Parade, Jim Gaffney always has a story ready to describe her incredible strengths and talents.

“Once I caddied for a PGA professional golfer in a charity pro-am. His name is Morris Hatalsky,” says Gaffney. “As we talked during the day he said, ‘Golf is a game of opposites. The things you would naturally do to make the ball go right are actually the things that make it go left, and the things you would innately think would make the ball go long, in fact, make it go short and
vise versa.’

“Hearing this never made my golf game any better, but I know enough about the game to appreciate what Hatalsky was saying. As I have lived with Karen since then, his words have come back to me many, many times. I have come to believe that life is the same way—the things we think will make us happy, in fact, can make us sad, and the things that are supposed to make us suffer, in fact, can bring us more happiness than we ever imagined to be possible.”


By Bridget Barton & Jim Gaffney

Karen Gaffney, who was born with Down syndrome, has never been a burden to her family. Together her parents worked hard so that neither of their children (Karen has a brother Brian) would be a burden on society. In the process, her parents and the entire family are happier for the experience.

Says her father, “We never suffered, and neither did our children. The difficult issue for us today is knowing that the best thing we can do for her is to teach her independent living when the joy of living with her is too hard to give up.

“She has given countless talks around the United States. In 20 minutes to an hour and a half we have seen her touch people’s lives in an immediate and positive way. It is our good fortune to live with her almost every day. It does not get old. We too are affected by her over and over, day after day. She is an inspiration to say the least. I don’t know how many times we have said to ourselves, ‘If Karen can do what she does, I can do the things that are difficult for me.’”

Karen, now 24 years old, completed all of the Oregon State requirements for her regular high school diploma from St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, graduating with a ‘B’ average. Karen also completed requirements for an AS degree and a certificate to be a teacher’s aide at Portland Community College in March 2001. But for Karen, that was just the beginning. Her father tells
their story:

“It was my idea for Karen to swim the English Channel. I didn’t know anything about it at the time. I really didn’t know anything about open water swimming. It was more word association than anything else. If she had been good at climbing, I would have said Mt. Everest. If she could run, I would have said the Boston Marathon.
“It came to me during her sophomore year in high school at St. Mary’s Academy. She was swimming a mile a day—four to five times a week. She was also studying 12 hours a day—seven days a week, eleven months a year. It seemed to me that a human being could not work harder than what Karen was doing to get through high school. It seemed to me that if she put half as much effort into her swimming, she could have the sport’s highest credential. I also understood the irony that the latter could bring her fame, but the former would not.

“The first time Karen announced publicly that she dreamed of swimming the Channel, the audience laughed. It was a friendly group of parents, family and friends of citizens with Down syndrome in and around Orlando, Florida where Karen was giving a keynote speech. One man was honored for having effectively ‘water-proofed’ over 1,200 disabled citizens. That is where their expectations were at the time: A ‘disabled’ citizen who accidentally fell into water could be taught to ‘swim’ to safety. For us to be thinking of swimming the English Channel put us on a different planet.

“Reactions to Karen’s announcement about the dream of a solo were never exactly the same. People who knew anything about the Channel politely told us we were crazy. But, it was only half as bad as what the ‘experts’ thought about Karen getting a real high school education to go with her diploma.

“Gail McCormack had attempted a solo over 20 years ago. Twice I met her socially and we talked about the dream. About that time Gail sent me an article that ran in Smithsonian about the epic of swimming the Channel. It featured Allison Streeter, a local female British swimmer who held the record for successful crossings. Gail wasn’t trying to encourage me; she was politely trying to save Karens life.

“Duncan Taylor is currently the Secretary (executive director) of the Channel Swimming Association in Dover, England. I found him through a business associate in the United Kingdom. He thought I was crazy, too. But, he was too kind to say so, and in his own mind knew if I was persistent enough, there was always the expanding new possibility of ‘alternate crossings.’
“Kathryn Cronin Haslach attempted a solo more than ten years ago, but was unsuccessful. Three days later she completed a relay swim across the Channel. Two years ago she was swimming on Saturdays with Karen in a Masters group at the Multnomah Athletic Club. She approached Karen with the idea of doing a relay instead of a solo. She was serious...

“Today I know that we accomplished everything we wanted, and more, with the relay. I also know more about Karen and what she can do. But, the idea of a solo still calls. It can be done. The only question in my mind is whether it will be Karen or someone else like her.

“Although swimming the Channel is by definition an international endurance sport, the British have always been the self-appointed caretakers. I am not sure if anyone in France knows—or cares—that swimmers cross it. Since Captain Webb made the first successful swim in 1875, the British have maintained rules and the ‘official’ record book. There is no record of anyone with Down syndrome ever having made an ‘official’ ‘swim’
or ‘crossing.’ Moreover, it is extremely unlikely that
it has happened, for many reasons, in the history of
the planet. For people like Karen, what she has accomplished is the equivalent of Lindberg, or Sheppard, or Shackleton.

“I realize I am over-reaching to mention her name with the pioneers remembered above. But when someone with Down syndrome does do the solo, the whole world should recognize the feat for being in the same category with these others.

“Karen has no dream of riches for her swimming. She doesn’t have an agent or a scholarship. I think she manifests the purest definition of an amateur athlete: She swims because she can, and the activity makes the rest of her life better.

“Part of dreaming is knowing when to compromise without cheating your soul. In the end the relay was not only an acceptable compromise, it was a better idea than a solo. Once the idea of a relay was born, we needed to put together a six-person team and get an alternate. Kathryn and her husband, Tim, were in, and so was Gail McCormick. We were afraid we wouldn’t be able to get the others. However, before we knew it, we had 12 swimmers with Karen’s brother Brian and his friend Camillo Bruce agreeing to be alternates. No one was willing to back out, so we decided to go with two teams...

“The next day we went to Coffinbury Lake at Ft. Stevens further up the Oregon Coast. The length of the lake was approximately three-quarters of a mile and the temperature was 67 degrees. Karen swam the length, as did everyone else, but she kept her head up the whole time. Gail McCormick stayed with her, which was frustrating for her because she was unable to get Karen to just relax and swim. Gail was having her doubts along with her brother Marc Bowen, who was another of the 14 swimmers...

“Despite what her story may suggest, Karen is not a daredevil. She is actually very cautious. Until she knows she can do something, she has to summon all of her courage to take that new step. You can hear her vocalize to herself: ‘Come on Karen, you can do it. Don’t be afraid honey, you’ll be alright.’ I have witnessed her struggle for years. She used to do this when I first was teaching her to swim and to compete in Special Olympics.

“Of course, we went back and practiced in Coffinbury over and over until Karen had it mastered. Brian and I would paddle a canoe along next to Karen for safety and to teach her how to navigate. We would pick landmarks that she would aim at until she could see the beach. The routine was to swim down and back. It took about 45 minutes. She became more and more comfortable with each swim.

“Later I bought a wave runner for safety. We moved to the Columbia River in Portland (the 42nd Street Ramp to the I-5 Bridge), Hagg Lake (over and back), and Nehalem Bay (one way, with the current for an hour, rest three hours and then do it again)...)

“Acceptance came one by one. By the time we were all in Dover, the swim was anticlimactic.

The individual swimmers had become a team. There was no tension on the boat for having to succeed. Everyone knew from the training that they could do it. They just needed a little luck from the elements...

“And so the dream began. For what proved to be far less than half the effort of high school, Karen received infinitely more recognition. And to her greatest credit—with this story to tell—she has inspired audiences of unlimited size as to the abilities, instead of the disabilities, of people like her.”


FRIDAY, JULY 13, 2001

We arrived at 12:30 P.M. on Tuesday the 10th. We made our connections, got all of our baggage, and made it to Dover by 3:30. The weather was overcast and windy, but reasonably warm. It is a small town. It closes up early, except for the pubs. We were the last ones out at 10:00.

Today looks like it will be the first beautiful day. The wind is down and the horizon is getting clear. I bet today is the first day I will be able to see France. There were gale force winds on Wednesday. I was wondering if the water was always rough—beyond the breaker wall there had been constant whitecaps. When we visited one of the charter-guide boats that afternoon I felt seasick just in the harbor. I felt like we had bitten off more than we could chew.

Karen swam in 59-degree water for 50 minutes, and then Brian swam for 35 minutes. It was the first time Karen had swum in heavy salt water. I have been worried for a long time as to how she would react to it. She did great. My depression went completely away. I was in the raft in a full-wet suit. Karen went through an oil slick and some very choppy water where she took in several gulps of bad water. No problem. I couldn’t have been higher. The last issue is whether or not she gets seasickness. We will find out on Sunday.

MONDAY, JULY 16, 2001

Things are much better, now. Today we toured the Dover castle. Times were much different then. I wonder how they treated their citizens with Down syndrome.
Any of the last three days would have been perfect for swimming across the Channel. Karen couldn’t be more ready. Tomorrow we are supposed to go out in the charter boat to get a feel for what is to come. We had dinner with the pilot and his wife last night. That was smart. So far, he likes us.


We had a team dinner last night. Many of the swimmers brought spouses and children. All were there. This morning we did team photos wearing different gear that sponsors provided. They will appreciate getting copies.
The team members who just arrived (Sunday, 22nd) didn’t like the idea of swimming the next day. But everyone understands that you go with the weather. There are many stories around the international swimming community here in Dover about swimmers who passed on a good opportunity, and then never got to go at all!

The weather was perfect. There was no wind, and the water was glassy in spots. It was calmer than we had seen so far on our trip. We couldn’t see France because of marine air on the horizon. We couldn’t see the silhouette of where we were going until approximately the ninth or tenth hour. This despite being able to actually see the white cliffs on the French side from Dover harbor the night before.

Karen went in for the first time at 2 p.m. One of my concerns over being so far down in the order was that seasickness might keep her from ever even getting in the water during the team’s attempt. As it turned out, she never displayed any symptoms at all.

Instead, she slept whenever she got the chance. And, as usual, she would be asleep as soon as her head was touching something. Her whole life she has left everything on the field of play. What could be so different about this day?

Another concern was jellyfish. We first saw them during Karen’s swim with 20 minutes left. One, during the next swim, was approximately 18 to 20 inches across. It had a murky-clear look to it with rust colored markings on its back in the pattern of a circle with spokes to the center—and it had tentacles. Gail was getting ready for her first leg at the end of Karen’s swim and didn’t know we were into them. She had them for the entire hour and didn’t know it. Sara was into them thick for the best part of her second leg, and she knew it. She was hitting large beds of loose kelp, where some of them collect, and she could see them floating at her. It was quite a relief to all to finally get through
them without a single sting. Team One described much the same experience—more good fortune.

The beginning of Karen’s first swim had its moments. We were worried about navigation in open water coming over here. She had been out in open water approximately two dozen times during the final year of training. Again, she has trouble seeing at a distance. We had her aim at large landmarks through all of this. Sometimes on a fast moving river, we would give her two or three different targets during the swim. That doesn’t work in the ocean when all you can see is water. We never were able to train in the ocean in Oregon because the water was always too cold—50 to 55 degrees.

The swim took 14 hours and 11 minutes. It is my theory that the time is determined by tides more than anything else. Team One finished in 14 hours and 20 minutes. Two South African teams, that swam a few days after us, finished in just under 14 hours, and the other in 15 hours and something. Allison Streeter, a 36-year-old who holds the record for the most crossings (40) swam a solo three days after us in 14 hours and 54 minutes. On the other hand, they say the average for relay swims is 12 hours. I think the tides were especially strong during the week of all of these swims. That is the reason we were given for why it took so long for our ride back.
Now that it is all over, it is interesting to look back at the near misses that could have stopped the whole effort. Going through the airport in San Francisco Karen tripped and fell. She isn’t quick enough to stop her falls. We thought she sprained her left wrist, but it was all right. She could easily have broken something.

And when Karen was getting into the Channel off the “Viking Princess” for her first leg, she let go too soon. The distance of her drop made her head go under water. She took in a mouth full. She started choking, but she pulled out of it. Amazing. We had every break. The outcome could have been much different. But, as Karen has said before, the real victory was just getting the opportunity to compete. As always, she had done her part. Having such a favorable result is just icing on the cake.

Team Gaffney completed the relay swim of the English Channel just after midnight on July 24, 2001. It was the first time a swimmer with Down syndrome has ever completed such a feat.

On Saturday, June 1, Karen Gaffney will ride in the Rose Festival Starlight Parade as the Grand Marshall. For Karen, it is yet another in a long line of once-in-a-lifetime experiences that continues to inspire all
who meet her.

“Our experience with people affected by the condition labeled, ‘Down syndrome’ is different from some of the so-called ‘elite American intellectuals,’” says Jim Gaffney. “In large part it is shaped by the experience of raising our daughter, but we do not think her accomplishments should be unique. We believe much of the data on these people is bad. We believe that the increased awareness about their capabilities is only beginning.

“We view Karen’s life as another step in the process of discovering what these citizens are capable of in a caring society,” says Gaffney.

“We believe we are in a golden age of enlightenment following decades of neglect. And we invite you, with us and with Karen, to imagine the possibilities...and then, like Karen, to live them.”

BrainstormNW - June 2002

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