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Life prepared her for channel swim: Karen Gaffney grew up with Down Syndrome and a desire to achieve
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Life prepared her for channel swim: Karen Gaffney grew up with Down Syndrome and a desire to achieve

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Life prepared her for channel swim: Karen Gaffney grew up with Down Syndrome and a desire to achieve
KARL MAASDAM/staff photographer
Karen Gaffney told an audience in Corvallis that she hopes to swim the English Channel again.

CORVALLIS -- Karen Gaffney is a poised twenty-something woman, articulate and comfortable speaking in public.

And she's got a story to tell. It's a classic theme: Given a serious obstacle to overcome, she did it through hard work, determination and confidence that the people telling her "you can't" were wrong.

And, as so often happens in stories like this, wrong they were.

Karen was born with Down Syndrome, a birth defect in which one of the chromosomes ends up with extra genetic material. It causes some degree of mental retardation and developmental delays, along with several distinctive differences in a person's face and body -- such as a flattened bridge of the nose.

In Karen's case, it caused trouble with her hips, and many trips to the hospital for major surgery.

"Some of you may have noticed that I walk with a limp," the diminutive blond-haired woman told a small audience in the Corvallis public library Saturday afternoon. "I have not been able to run since I was four years old. So I swim instead. My dad taught me to swim before I could walk, and it was a good thing he did."

A good thing, Karen said, because it gave her something to get good at. One of the symptoms of Down Syndrome is low muscle tone, which causes a lot of the Down Syndrome "accent" in speech.

But if you use a muscle, it will get stronger. Karen threw herself into swimming with the full knowledge that she was going to have to work twice as hard as the other kids to beat them -- just as she would have to work twice as hard to talk normally, twice as hard to make friends, twice as hard to graduate from high school.

"It meant a lot to me to be able to dive into the pool and swim much faster and longer than most of them," she said.

When Karen was in the fifth grade, school authorities told her parents it was time to take her out of school and set her up in a "life skills" program. No way, they said.

Today, she's a graduate of St. Mary's Academy, a private Catholic high school in Portland. Her grade-point average is 3.0. She's the president of the Karen Gaffney Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting people with Down Syndrome fully included in society.

"The foundation was my senior project," she said. "It was my idea, and Jean Edwards at Portland State helped me with it."

She's also the first person with Down Syndrome to swim the English Channel as part of a relay team.

It was a six-person team, supported by two boats. They made their way through roughly 30 miles of 60-degree water, with huge waves, entangling kelp and stinging jellyfish. No wetsuits were allowed.

"My team needed me, and that was a great feeling," Karen said. "But it was even better to know they had confidence in me."

It was an accomplishment she had trained for for over a year, swimming three miles every day in the Columbia River. She trained with the other members of her team, and after they went home, she came back and swam the training course alone, again and again.

Today, she's thinking about going on another channel swim, with a twist:

"I'm hoping to get more people with Down Syndrome to do it this time," she said.

Gaffney lives in Portland. Her talk in Corvallis was part of leadership seminar sponsored the Arc of Benton County, Home Life Inc., and Benton County.

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