World-Class Swimming, Hearing Impairment and Down Syndrome: Interview with Karen Gaffney

World-Class Swimming, Hearing Impairment and Down Syndrome: Interview with Karen Gaffney

April 18, 2012 Interviews

Douglas L. Beck, AuD, spoke with Karen Gaffney about her experiences as a world-class swimmer, getting hearing aids, working through school, and doing it all with Down Syndrome. "Karen is one of the most remarkable people I've ever met," says Dr. Beck.

Karen swimming from Alcatraz Island with Gary Emich, a practice swim before the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon relay

Academy: Hi, Karen. Good to chat with you again.

Gaffney: Hi, Dr. Beck. Thanks. It's good to speak with you, too.

Academy: Karen, you are truly one of the most remarkable people I've ever met. Your accomplishments are outstanding. Let's review some of them here, and we can refer the readers to your Web site for more information.

Gaffney: Sure. That sounds good.

Academy: Karen, do you remember how old you were when you were first diagnosed with hearing loss and started wearing hearing aids?

Gaffney: Yes, I do remember. I was about 6 or 7 years old, and when I started wearing hearing aids, everything changed. I could hear a lot better and I was able to listen more attentively because the sounds started to make more sense to me. And I've worn hearing aids ever since, so it's been almost 30 years!

Academy: You've been very successful academically. In fact, I should note you attended mainstreamed classes and graduated from St. Mary's Academy in Portland, Oregon, and then you also completed an associate's degree from Portland Community College.

Gaffney: Right.


Karen doing a practice swim before the Molokini Challenge…with Mike Spaulding – near Molokini Crater off Wailea Beach, Maui dec

Academy: Karen, I know how hard it is to get an education for most of us, but frankly, for you it had to be an even greater challenge as you had to deal with Down Syndrome and hearing loss. How did you get through all of it?

Gaffney: Well, it really was difficult, but I was determined to always do my very best and I had a few secret weapons in my corner. First, my mom worked with me almost every night to review and research the topics we were working on, and we used a binder system for my mom and my teachers to communicate and to stay ahead of the lessons and that was very important. I was also very disciplined myself, not only with academics, but also with athletics.

Academy: And not only do you have a college degree, which clearly states your academic ability and achievements, but you are a world-class athlete. Tell me a little about that?

Gaffney: Well, I started swimming when I was nine months old.

Academy: Karen, that's earlier than most people learn to walk. That is quite amazing.

Gaffney: Well, it's what we did. And then I was in Special Olympics when I was about age 7 to about age 9 years.

Academy: And what was your sport?

Gaffney: It was the 500 yard swimming event.

Academy: I'm not a swimmer, but that seems like a quite a distance for a 7 year old!

Gaffney: Yes it was pretty far!

Karen with Kevin Drake (l) and Mike Spaulding ( R ) after a practice swim before the Molokini Wailea Challenge – dec 2011

Academy: And then you had quite a few hip surgeries, too, and if I recall, swimming helped as physical therapy, too.

Gaffney: Yes. I had five hip surgeries, the last one was when I was 15 years old, and swimming helped me to re-gain my muscle control.

Academy: And I should mention that you've done an amazing array of very impressive swims, such as the nine-mile swim across Lake Tahoe in 50 degree water!

Gaffney: Yes, that's the swim the documentary film covers in depth.

Academy: Right. The video is very impressive. Not only does it show the rigors and challenges associated with a nine mile swim in cold water, but it shows the obstacles, the dangers and the strategies you used to overcome the distance and the physical demands. And of course, as you emerge from the water at the end of the swim, it's very emotional.

Gaffney: Yes, that was really an unforgettable moment.

Academy: And you've got another major swim this fall in upstate New York?

Gaffney: Yes, it's on September 15, 2012, at Lake Champlain, and this will be my second time swimming there.

Academy: And who will be hosting and organizing the swim this September in New York?

Gaffney: That swim will be a fund-raiser for the North County Down Syndrome Association in Plattsburgh, New York.

Academy: And how far is that swim?

Gaffney: It'll be eight and a half miles and I suspect it'll take me about five and a half to six hours.

Academy: Wow. I don't even like to drive that long! And you were recently in Hawaii doing another fund-raising swim there?

Gaffney: Yes, that was a seven-mile swim in warm water, and I completed it in about five hours. See the Maui News article about the event.

Karen in Boston Harbor, with kayaker Chris Hecht. before they had to be re routed by the coast guard. oct 2009

Academy: And you swam across Boston Harbor a few years ago, following an eight-mile course, which reminds me of two important points: First, that's pretty much an "open water" ocean swim as the water can be very cold and choppy and the currents are strong and indeed, and second, as I recall from your story, there was a problem during that swim?

Gaffney: Yes, that was in 2009. The weather went crazy and there was a "small craft advisory" issued in the middle of the swim, and we had to be re routed mid-swim! I wasn't able to swim the whole course, so I will have to try that one again sometime. Review that new story on

Academy: Karen, you are an incredibly busy and a most remarkable young lady. In addition to working at the Karen Gaffney Foundation and speaking all over the United States, you have another part-time job, too. So I know you have to get back to work in a few moments, but before I let you go, I want to encourage the readers to visit your Foundation Web site to learn much more about you and your foundation and I want to ask you, what is the single most important "take-home" message for the readers? What is the lesson we can each learn from your remarkable accomplishments?

Gaffney: Well, it's really simple. The message is people with disabilities want to be treated just like everyone else. That's why I started the non-profit foundation 12 years ago to emphasize the importance of inclusion, exercise, and the idea of "everyday courage" to fight self-doubt and the doubt of others, while we strive to realize our dreams and accomplish our own personal goals.

Academy: That's a great message, Karen. Thanks so much for your time and I'll do my best to join you for the Lake Champlain swim!

Gaffney: Thanks, Dr. Beck. I'll look forward to seeing you there!


Karen Gaffney Long Distance Swim History

English Channel relay swim, July 2001 first person with Down Syndrome to complete a relay across the English Channel.

Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon Relay – swimmer 2006, 2007, 2008.

Swam from Alcatraz to Chrissy Field 16 times. Completed a "Swim around the Rock" – 4.5 miles from Aquatic Park, out to Alcatraz, around the Island and back. October 2006

Donner Lake Swim – 2.8 mile swim of the length of Donner Lake, near Truckee CA. August, 2007 and August, 2008

Lake Tahoe Crossing, 2007. 9.5 miles from Dead Man Point on the Nevada side to Sugar Pine Point on the California side.

Dun Laoghaire Harbour Swim, Dublin Ireland 2009. Karen was there for the World Down Syndrome Congress. A 'shirt tail' relative who knew of Alcatraz swims, AND was an organizer of the swim that weekend, qualified her to join the event. They gave her an award for being the fastest overseas swimmer (she was the ONLY overseas swimmer, but an award is an award!)

Boston Harbor, October 2009, to raise awareness for the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress Buddy Walk. Followed the Boston Light Swim route, an 8 mile route, but was rerouted due to small craft advisory…finished about 5 miles of the route.

Lake Champlain – September 2010. From South Hero Beach in Vermont to Plattsburgh City Beach in New York. 8.5 miles, fund raiser for the North County Down Syndrome Association, Plattsburgh

Columbia River Swim and Cruise for the Kids- August 2011. Six-mile swim from the I-205 Bridge to the I-5 Bridge on the Columbia River in Portland, OR, to raise funds for an aquatic program for the Providence Center for Medically Fragile Children.

Wailea – Molikini Challenge December 2011. 5 mile swim from Molokini to Wailea, for Best Buddies, Hawaii. Turned in the 7 miles due to strong currents that showed up the morning of the swim.

Upcoming Swim

Lake Champlain, Sept 15, 2012, for another crossing, Vermont to New York, for the North County Down Syndrome Association.

Karen Gaffney is the president of Karen Gaffney Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to championing the journey to full inclusion in families, schools, the workplace and the community for people with developmental disabilities. She is doing this by creating awareness and calling attention to the tremendous capabilities of people with disabilities.

Douglas L. Beck, AuD, Board Certified in Audiology, is the Web content editor for the American Academy of Audiology.

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