WAILEA - At age 33, Karen Gaffney has achieved more than most. She has swam nine miles across Lake Tahoe, raised $76,000 to benefit aquatic therapy programs and was part of a relay team to cross the English Channel.
What makes Karen's story unique is that she did it all despite being told she couldn't. Karen was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder associated with learning disabilities, poor muscle tone and other health issues. When she was born, little was known about the condition.
"This was 30 years ago, so it wasn't very positive," Karen's mother, Barbara Gaffney, said of her daughter's initial prognosis. "The first doctor basically talked about the limits rather than the possibilities."
With Kahoolawe and Molokini in the background, Karen Gaffney and Mike Spalding take part in a 3-mile swim Wednesday morning.
Jim Gaffney photo
Karen Gaffney is guided by Rory Belk, an assistant coach with Baldwin High School, during a morning workout in Wailea on Tuesday.
JIM GAFNNEY photo
She added, "We were fortunate enough to have people around us and family around us who thought a whole lot more positively than that."
The result is a woman who has redefined what it means to live with Down syndrome. She's a college graduate, a long-distance swimmer and a passionate advocate for others like herself.
Karen Gaffney's next mission: Swim from Molokini to Wailea Beach as part of Saturday's Wailea Molokini Challenge, an inaugural event benefitting Best Buddies Hawaii and Ka Lima O Maui. She will be joined by a flotilla of canoe and stand-up paddlers who will begin at Wailea Beach, circumnavigate Molokini and then paddle back.
Later that evening, Gaffney will speak at a luau and award presentation from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Wailea Beach Marriott Spa & Resort. Actress Maureen McCormick, best known as Marcia Brady from "The Brady Bunch" television show, will emcee.
A resident of Portland, Ore., Gaffney arrived on Maui earlier this week to prepare for the open-water challenge. Accomplished distance swimmer Mike Spalding and Baldwin High School assistant swim coach Rory Belk have accompanied her during early-morning sessions along the south Maui coastline.
"It was perfect out there," Gaffney said after one of her workouts. "I'm getting ready for Saturday, and I just think that I can do it."
Swimming has always been a part of Gaffney's life. In fact, she can't remember a time without it. At 9 months old her dad dunked her in a pool, and she's been kicking ever since. Her mother said that for Karen, swimming has always been "an equalizer."
"She'd be in the water with all the other kids and she could swim as well, if not better, than all the other kids at a preschool age," Barbara Gaffney said.
Karen Gaffney added: "I've always been good at swimming and it really helps me to stay more alert, especially in high school and college, it helped me stay awake more and more physically fit."
Karen Gaffney started the Karen Gaffney Foundation - a nonprofit organization that encourages inclusion for those with Down syndrome - while she was still in high school. What started back then as a senior project has evolved into a full-time passion. Today she traverses the country, giving around 30 presentations each year. She also presents workshops on the importance of physical fitness and started "The Friends First Network" in Portland schools to promote diversity awareness.
Her message is simple.
"I really want people to understand that we're more alike than we are different," Gaffney said. "I just want them to know about the tremendous capabilities of people with Down syndrome and I want to show them what is possible for people like me."
Apparently, that message has caught on.
The day after Gaffney crossed the English Channel, the Oregonian newspaper published a photo of her with the headline "English Channel Vanquished." Gaffney later discovered the article gave hope to a couple she had never met.
"They had no idea their baby would be born with Down syndrome," Barbara Gaffney explained. "The doctor came in to talk to them and walked in with their baby in his arms and the Oregonian in his hand and explained to them that their child was born with Down syndrome.
"The parents said, 'We don't even know what that is.' The doctor looked at them and said, 'Well, this is all you need to know,' and showed them the newspaper."
Karen Gaffney smiled as her mother told the story, before adding, "I think people see me as a role model - they see what is possible."
* Lehia Apana is at email@example.com