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June 8, 2022|
By: Karen Gaffney

Perseverance: According to Webster’s dictionary, it means “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition.”  I learned this from my Dad!

Many people in the Down Syndrome Community know me because of my accomplishments in open water swimming. I am the first person with Down syndrome to swim a relay across the English Channel. I think I am the only person with Down syndrome to swim a nonstop nine-mile solo swim across the width of Lake Tahoe. I also like to tell people that I’m the first person with Down syndrome to “escape from Alcatraz”. I have done that swim from Alcatraz Island where the prison used to be, all the way across the San Francisco Bay, sixteen times now. And unlike some famous prisoners who have attempted that swim, I have lived to talk about it.

Karen Gaffney and father

I have done many other open water swims across Lake Champlain, the Columbia River, the Boston Harbor, Dun Laoghaire Harbor in Dublin, Ireland, Molikini to Waelea Beach in Maui, just to name a few.

I swim two miles a day, five or six days a week, so that I can stay in shape and be ready for any swim challenge that comes my way!

I got my love of swimming from my Dad! And we both learned ‘perseverance’ along the way! Dad started teaching me in a pool when I was nine months old, and I could swim long before I could walk. It wasn’t long before I could do something as well or even better than other kids my age. And that meant a lot to me.

I had surgeries on both hips, five times from the age of three till the last one at thirteen. These kept me out of the water for about three months each time, but my Dad got me back in and we just picked up from where we left off. I guess you could call that ‘perseverance’!

Karen Gaffney English Channel

While I was recovering from my last surgery, Dad showed me a magazine article about swimming the English Channel. We read it together and talked about a goal. What if I got better and strong enough to one day swim the English Channel, and that became a dream of mine!

I did get better and stronger, and made it on to my high school swim team. I didn’t win any races, but I felt like I had won, just being there with the other swimmers, and competing along side everyone else. And my Dad and I still had our dream to one day swim the English Channel!

After a year of hard work, training and perseverance, our six-person relay team made it across the English Channel, and the goal my Dad and I set as I was recovering in a body cast was finally achieved!

Then we set a new goal to swim across Lake Tahoe, only this time, I would do that as a solo swim! Perseverance!

Because of my Dad, I have been able to achieve things in the water not many people with or without Down syndrome can do. But what is more important is that there are many young people with Down syndrome who have read about my swims and are in the water today, setting goals and records of their own!

This extra chromosome we all share throws all sorts of obstacles in our way, it creates barriers that are difficult to overcome and sometimes boundaries that others set down for us. But then you have Dads and dreams and goals, and you just push through all that! Perseverance! Thanks Dad!

When some swimmers at the athletic club where I swim offered to help me reach my goal by forming a relay team to swim the Channel, we were on our way! It took a little over a year of training, learning to swim in open water – there are no lane lines in open water, and acclimating to cold water – no wetsuits are allowed for a Channel swim, before we were ready.

I was pretty bad in open water at first, and after our practice swims, Dad and I stayed behind as I practiced again and again. We also showed up early at the swim locations and I got more practice in before the others showed up. Pretty soon I could keep up with the others, but Dad and I still practiced longer and swam further, so that I could build my endurance!

Karen Gaffney