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Swimmer Julia Gaffney Has Assembled An Impressive Career, But First Paralympics Will Have To Wait

By Alex Abrams | April 05, 2020, 8 a.m. (ET)

Julia Gaffney celebrates at the 2019 World Para-Swimming Championships on Sept. 13, 2019 in London.


Julia Gaffney is accustomed to swimming every day, but she hasn’t stepped into a pool in a couple of weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s the longest Gaffney has gone without swimming in quite a while. The rising Para swimming star, who holds the S7 world record in the women’s 100-meter backstroke, has been forced to train on dry land.

Even the facilities at Gaffney’s new home at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, have been temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m still keeping very active and doing lots of core stuff in my room,” she said.

Gaffney recently obtained a rowing machine to help her stay in shape. She also has a “big, bulky” ergometer machine that allows the 19-year-old world champion in the 200-meter individual medley SM7 to simulate the backstroke and butterfly technique while she’s forced to stay out of the pool.

Of course, nothing can simulate the excitement Gaffney expected to be feeling in August while competing in her first Paralympic Games in Tokyo. However, the Games have been postponed one year because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“At first, before we knew about anything with the postponing of the Olympics and Paralympics, it was pretty stressful like, ‘Ah, we got to try to find a pool. We got to try to maintain our fitness,” Gaffney said. “But now we know it’s postponed. It’s kind of like, ‘OK, we can breathe a little bit.’”

As time passed, though, Gaffney said she felt a sense of disappointment. The postponement of the Paralympic Games meant she’d have to train for another year for what she hoped would be her biggest moment on the world’s stage. 

Gaffney would have arrived in Tokyo this summer as the likely favorite to win gold in both the 200-meter IM and the 100-meter backstroke. She also thought she could push fellow American teammate Mallory Weggemann for gold in the 50 butterfly.

In September, Weggemann and Gaffney finished first and second, respectively, in the 50 butterfly S7 at the World Para Swimming Championships in London. 

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Gaffney said she felt she was hitting her stride heading into the World Para Swimming World Series stop in Indianapolis, which was scheduled for mid-April before it was also postponed because of the pandemic.

“I was ready to go. I was ready to throw down some really fast best times,” said Gaffney, who turns 20 on May 1. “So, I was really really excited, but I guess I just have to think, ‘Look, I have a whole nother year to train and get even faster and stronger.”

Born in Russia and raised in Arkansas, Gaffney had her right leg amputated above the knee and her left leg amputated below the knee. Swimming is her way of escaping her disability, which she has been unable to do lately.

Gaffney earned five silver medals and one bronze at the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City. Two years later, she finally won her first gold when she touched the wall only 0.02 seconds ahead of Canada’s Tess Routliffe to win the 200-meter IM S7 at the 2019 worlds in London.

“It felt so good. I just remember that day and the 200 IM, and I was just telling myself over and over that I was going to do everything it took to win and just repeating like, ‘You can do this. You can do this,’” Gaffney said.

“And so when I hit the wall and I saw my name in first, I was just so happy and relieved and like all of these emotions and I slapped the water. It was a really awesome feeling.”

Considering how quickly Gaffney has progressed in the pool, she said she wasn’t surprised when she set her first world record at last year’s World Series stop in Indianapolis with a time of 1:19.47 in the 100-meter backstroke. She said she now hopes to lower her own record to 1:18.

With another year to prepare for the Paralympic Games, Gaffney wants to work on improving her swimming technique, especially her backstroke. She also hopes to change all of her routines and get more sleep, eat better and become mentally stronger.

“There are some really fast backstrokers out there right now, and they’re creeping up close,” Gaffney said. “So I gotta go fast.” 

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Julia Gaffney