Get It Down 31 for 21: Post 3

Karen Gaffney conquers Lake Tahoe

“Everest of sorts” – The 29-year-old Portlander with Down syndrome swims across the nation’s second-deepest lake

Wednesday, September 26, 2007KATY MULDOON

The Oregonian Staff

Celebratory air-horn blasts punctuated the high-Sierra afternoon Tuesday as Karen Gaffney approached Lake Tahoe’s shore and another landmark accomplishment for those with disabilities.

When she emerged from the water shortly after noon, the 29-year-old Portlander became the first person with Down syndrome to swim the nine-mile distance across the nation’s second-deepest lake. Her time: six hours, 15 minutes.

“It felt great out there,” Gaffney said by telephone a couple of hours later. “But I’m happy it’s over.”

Gaffney first made a name for herself in July 2001, when she became the first person with Down syndrome to swim the English Channel on a relay team. She’s tackled other open-water challenges since, including the swim portion of the rigorous Escape From Alcatraz triathlon in the San Francisco Bay.

The Tahoe swim was her father, Jim’s, idea. He’d vacationed there as a child and knew that for swimmers, it was an Everest of sorts.

The family spent the past two weeks at Tahoe so Gaffney could train at altitude; the 1,645-foot-deep lake sits at 6,225 feet in the heart of the Sierra Nevada range. It’s clarity is legendary: Swimmers can see 70 feet down, and it feels, said Ken Harmon, “like you’re swimming on top of a skyscraper.”

Harmon, a 47-year-old Californian, claims the record for swimming the farthest, lengthwise, across Tahoe. The family enlisted his advice to help Karen Gaffney train and to keep her company, along with a handful of other swimmers, Tuesday.

Training the past two weeks was tough. Windy weather lathered up whitecaps on the lake, often forcing Gaffney to move her workout to nearby pools.

But when they awoke hours before dawn Tuesday, Jim Gaffney said, “it was one of those Dover days.” The day his daughter swam the English Channel, the usually churning sea between Dover, England, and France was mirror-smooth.

In the night, the wind had vanished, and Tahoe had flattened. But balmy, it wasn’t.

When the family arrived at 4:30 a.m. in Homewood, on the California shore, they had to tread cautiously along docks and a boat deck iced with frost. The air temperature shivered at 38 degrees as they motored across the lake. By the time they got to the put-in at Deadman Point on the Nevada side, Karen’s 4-foot-10-inch, 95-pound body shook with cold.

Harmon knew it would be warmer in the water, 59 degrees.

It took some persuading, he said, particularly because Karen was nervous about swimming in the dark. But when Harmon jumped in a stone’s throw from the shoreline cliff at about 6:15 a.m., Gaffney did, too.

She wore a wet suit and neoprene hood, topped with a swim cap bearing the logo of the Multnomah Athletic Club, where she typically swims two miles, six or seven days each week. The routine has helped alleviate problems associated with her misshapen hips and legs that splay awkwardly, hallmarks of Down syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality.She and Harmon also wore glow sticks on their swim caps so that in the pitch-black water, they could see each other and the flotilla of accompanying boats before the sun came up.

Once Gaffney found her rhythm, Harmon said, she never missed a beat as they swam west across the lake.

Karen stopped every 30 minutes so her uncle, Bill Gaffney of Lake Oswego, who paddled a kayak, could hand her water, Gatorade, bananas, Fig Newtons and energy bars.

In addition to Harmon, three others took turns swimming with Gaffney throughout the morning.

When they were a mile or more from the California shore, Harmon said, they could see the sandy lake bottom beneath, which made it seem as if they were almost home. Those waiting on the beach at Homewood blasted air horns and hollered encouragement.

“All that really carried her,” Jim Gaffney said.

Finally, just after 12:30 p.m., Gaffney climbed out of the lake, greeted by cheers, a bouquet of pink balloons and a bank of TV cameras.

Someone placed a flower lei around her neck, Harmon said, and a smile nearly as big as Tahoe crossed the woman’s face.

3 Responses

  1. AWESOME. I have a 2 month old little girl that has down syndrome.

  2. That’s awesome!!!!!!! BTW I lived in Portland and love Lake Tahoe!!

  3. Wow. I have goosebumps! (and just not from thinking of the cold, cold water!!!) What a wonderful story. I’ll be sure to pass it onto family!

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