Karen Gaffney, long-distance swimmer, advocate, receives doctorate of humane letters

I’ve written previously how medical professionals are instructed to be humble in predicting how Down syndrome may affect a life. Karen Gaffney’s accomplishments certainly demonstrate the wisdom of this instruction.

Last week, in recognition of her contributions to society, the University of Portland awarded Karen a doctorate of humane letters. She is the first living person with Down syndrome to receive a doctorate. The honor is well-deserved.

Karen has made a name for herself for her long-distance swimming. She has participated in a relay-team that crossed the English Channel; completed the swimming leg of the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon; and swam the width of Lake Tahoe. That sounds impressive enough, but truly appreciating how much effort is involved in each of those feats make them all the more remarkable.

The English Channel has posed a challenge to many swimmers. It separates England from France and is 21-miles wide. The swim from Alcatraz was one that scared inmates from attempting to flee because of the rough waters. And, the Lake Tahoe swim was nine miles. The water was only 59-degrees for these open water swims, and Karen swam the English Channel without a wetsuit, so that it would be officially recorded.

The distance and conditions of each swim are enough to make almost everyone decide there’s something they would rather do. However, if you have ever swam, you can appreciate the mental challenge of swimming such a great distance.

As a kid, we would vacation with a friend’s family at Lake Cumberland. When I was in middle school, I remember my friend and I deciding to swim across the inlet by his family’s lake house. This swim wasn’t even a mile across, but it was done without any flotation aids. Once you get half-way across, you’ve really committed–it’s as far to the other side as it would be to turn back. You better make it to one shore, given the alternative. And, that’s when the negative thoughts begin to enter the mind: “I’m getting tired;” “this is further than I thought;” “what was that that just bumped my leg?;” “I’m going to die out here–I’m going to drown or some water monster will drag me down.”

Unlike Karen, I had all of these thoughts and fears when I had use of both my legs. Karen, though, has had multiple surgeries on her left hip, resulting in her swimming kick being exclusively with her right leg. While I’m freaking out from what likely amounted to no more than a 15 minute swim, Karen swims for hours. There were likely some very large catfish and bass in the lake I swam, but Karen should have had legitimate fears of sea monsters while out in the English Channel, or San Francisco Bay, or the many other open water swims she has completed.

Don Miller writes in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years about the experience of feeling the resistance halfway through a journey across a body of water. He uses it as a metaphor for any journey in life. The beginning starts out full of energy, but then, inevitably, we all hit the middle that we have to muddle through, before experiencing the joy of finishing.

Karen uses her swimming as a similar metaphor for overcoming struggles and doubts in the many talks she gives around the nation and the world. It is for both her impressive swimming feats and her public advocacy that the University of Portland recognized her with the doctorate of humane letters.

No doubt, Karen’s parents could not have envisioned such a life when they first received her diagnosis of Down syndrome. None of us can for any of our children. Karen’s life is Exhibit A to ACOG Ethics Committee Opinion No. 321 admonition to be cautious in making any predictions on what a Down syndrome diagnosis can mean for a life. As the official citation accompanying Karen’s degree stated, her life is a testament that any cultural bias against those with Down syndrome “are wrong and unjust.”

Above is the video of her receiving her doctorate and the accompanying remarks in full, with some photos of Karen’s swims.

Here is a link to a local news report on the honor, in which Karen is interviewed.


  1. What an amazingly brave, beautiful (and crazy!) woman, to have swam the English Channel. Our British waters are cold..even during the summer months. She deserves a medal!


  1. […] written before about Karen’s accomplishments at this post; she also has a Foundation, which you can learn more about and support at this […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: