An hour before sunrise Tuesday, with temperatures in the low 30s, Karen Gaffney strapped on a bright red swim cap and kid-size turquoise goggles.
She tucked a neon glow stick under the goggle strap, took a deep breath, stretched her arms in her full wetsuit and plunged into the 60-degree waters off Dead Man’s Point on the east shore of Lake Tahoe.
Gaffney would be swimming into the afternoon in an attempt to make history.
Her mission: To be the first person with Down syndrome to cross the lake, swimming nine miles from the east Shore to the west shore’s Sugar Pine Point.
“We’re not aware of what these people can do,” Gaffney’s father, Jim, said confidently before witnessing his daughter plunge into the cold darkness.
When asked about his daughter, he simply described her as “determined and disciplined.”
Karen, a 29-year-old from Portland Ore., has a college degree and is a public speaker advocating the abilities of people with Down syndrome with her own non-profit: The Karen Gaffney Foundation. The swim was aimed at raising money for the nonprofit National Down Syndrome Congress.
Swimming since she was nine months old, Karen is perhaps more comfortable in water than on land.
“She swims much faster than she walks,” said her mother, Barbara Gaffney.
Hip dysplasia has made it difficult for Karen to walk. She’s had five surgeries in an attempt to correct her gait. She also has poor eyesight, making open water swimming more challenging than being in a pool.
Despite all the challenges, Karen continues to break barriers in the sport. She has competed in the Donner Lake Swim in Truckee and the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon in the Bay Area. She’s even crossed the English Channel on a relay team.
But as the sun rose over the Sierra Nevada on Tuesday – and with her support team in tow – it was clear Karen would need every bit of the 3-6 miles a day she trained in the weeks leading up to the swim.
The historic swim
Taking feeds of Gatorade, bananas and Fig Newtons every 30 to 45 minutes from a support kayak piloted by her uncle, Bill Gaffney, Karen swam in time with a rotating group of pacers, one of whom was Ken Harmon, from Danville, Calif., the fastest swimmer to cross the length of the lake.
But her support team was far from alone Tuesday. An entourage of six boats, mostly camera crews from national and local networks and news services, chronicled Karen’s swim from start to finish.
Why Lake Tahoe?
The Gaffney’s chose Tahoe for the historic swim because it has been a favorite of the family for generations.
Karen Gaffney said remembers playing on the beaches as child. Father Jim Gaffney said he was looking for a good spot to complete a “solo” swim “to demonstrate on her own how strong she is in the water.”
The only concerns the Gaffney family expressed prior to Karen’s early morning swim was starting on time:
“You’re just racing against the wind. You got to get started before it picks up,” Barbara Gaffney said.
Her pace was strong and consistent as she glided, and the waters of Big Blue cooperated with a classic fall calm.
“It’s one of the most beautiful lakes in the world,” mother Barbara Gaffney said.
While taking a well-deserved break, Karen and her family said swimming shore-to-shore in Tahoe will not be her final triumph.
“(I want her to) swim Napali off the north coast of Kauai,” Phil Summers, one of Gaffney’s coaches said. “The other is a secret … I have to do some research to see if it’s even possible.”
Chances are, for Gaffney, who became the first person with Down Syndrome to swim the width of Lake Tahoe last Tuesday, it will be.
For more information go to http://www.karengaffneyfoundation.org