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Two athletes fight nature and their own disabilities to help make a difference.
Photo: James Gaffney
Lake Tahoe is a special place. One look at its deep blue waters can inspire people to accomplishments they never thought possible. In September 2007, two athletes rose to a challenge: swim across Lake Tahoe. One became the first person with Down syndrome to cross the lake, and the other did the swim without the use of his legs.
Born to Swim
Karen Gaffney, 30, has been described as more comfortable in the water than on land. She’s been swimming since she was nine months old. On September 25, 2007, in slightly more than six hours, she proved just what a lifetime of determination can do and became the first person with Down syndrome to swim across Lake Tahoe—nine miles from Deadman Point, on the Nevada side, to Homewood, California. “We’re not aware of what these people can do,” says Gaffney’s father, Jim.
An entourage of supporters, a rotating group of pacers, and local and national camera crews followed Gaffney across the lake in six boats. Her uncle paddled close behind her in a kayak with Gatorade and snacks for refueling breaks every 30 to 45 minutes, and Gaffney’s brother, Brian, rode near her on a Jet Ski.
Tahoe isn’t the Portland, Oregon resident’s only feat of swimming endurance. In July 2001 she made a name for herself as the first person with Down syndrome to swim the English Channel on a relay team and has since continued to challenge herself with competitions such as the swim portion of the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon.
Gaffney’s swims help her advocate the abilities of people with Down syndrome, something she does out of the water as well through her nonprofit, The Karen Gaffney Foundation. Her Tahoe crossing was aimed at raising money for the National Down Syndrome Congress. “It was a new experience,” Gaffney said. “I really hit a homerun on the swim, and I really made a lot of people proud.”—CHARLIE JOHNSTON
Swimming For His Life
Matt Bailey peered down the barrel of the gun that he held in his mouth. His finger, poised on the trigger, taunted him—pull it, and it’s all over. Pain radiated through his body, the effects of chemotherapy fighting to save a life that he so desperately wanted to end.
But Bailey put the gun down and has since changed his outlook from that dark day in 2003. A paraplegic survivor of cancerous tumors in his spine that left him without the use of his legs, Bailey participates in marathons, triathlons, and Iron Man competitions for one simple reason. “Because I can,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “Too many people have forgotten the love of doing something. That’s what I try to remember to do every day. I just love what I do.”
At 49, the former Reno swim instructor is one of the oldest disabled athletes to still be competing regularly. He has been working in the Reno community participating in nearly 42 athletic events over the past three years, trying to raise awareness for the disabled community.
As a spokesperson for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which supports disabled athletes of all ages, Bailey recently started a donation fund to help purchase prosthetic limbs for children who can’t afford them. And he was going to be the one to start it off.
In one of his more ambitious events, a 12-mile swim across Lake Tahoe on September 11, 2007, Bailey accepted donations to get the fund started. The ordeal took six hours total in 65-degree water, starting at Tahoe City near Lake Forest Point, and across to Nevada State Beach. Bailey says he never once was discouraged. “I wanted to change the life of a little boy or girl,” he says. “If I ever got tired, all I had to do was look at my arm coming out of the water and think about a child somewhere who didn’t have an arm. That was enough to keep me going.”
Bailey, often described as pig headed by his friends, is boisterous and unafraid to speak his mind or challenge himself. Close friend Nick Estes was there the day of the swim and affirms Bailey’s perseverance. “Once you tell Matt he can’t do something, he’ll go out and do it…and then some,” Estes says. “He’s just a stubborn guy like that.”
While Bailey admits he has his stubbornness to thank for his progress, his day is full of endless pills for the pain, making it hard for him not to feel embittered toward his handicap. And yet, it’s because of his situation and these events that he’s found new meaning in life. “I hate this disability, but at the same time, it has changed my life,” says Bailey, who’s next challenge is on July 25, when he will swim 26 miles across California’s San Pedro Channel from Long Beach to Avalon on Santa Catalina Island to mark his 50th birthday. “You want to know what I’m trying to do? I’m trying to change the way people think and live their lives. Too many people think about tomorrow, and not enough people live for the moment. I want to show people they can live in that moment.”—KRYSTAL BICK
WORTH A CLICK
The Karen Gaffney Foundation
Blueberry Shoes Productions
DVD, Crossing Tahoe: A Swimmer’s Dream