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For Best Friends Julia Gaffney, Mikaela Jenkins The Paralympic Drive Is A Journey Best Enjoyed Together

By Santosh Venkataraman | June 16, 2021, 10 a.m. (ET)

(L-R) Julia Gaffney and Mikaela Jenkins pose for a photo at the 2019 World Para-Swimming Allianz Championships on Sept. 13, 2019 in London.

 

U.S. Paralympic Team Trials Dynamic Duos, presented by Samsung is a three-part series of stories highlighting pairs on their journey to U.S. Paralympic Team Trials and the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

 

It was one of the most dramatic finishes possible in swimming, when Para swimmer Julia Gaffney finally took gold at the 2019 world championships, winning by .02 seconds in the 200-meter individual medley. Moments later, U.S. teammate Mikaela Jenkins edged out her closest competitor by about half a second to capture her first gold in the 100-meter fly. 
  
It was around this time that their friendship was blossoming, making them inseparable and turning them into a “dynamic duo.”
  
“Me and Mikaela became really close at the 2019 worlds, it was our first worlds both together,” said Gaffney, a native of Mayflower, Arkansas. “And I think one of my favorite moments of that meet was when I swam the 200 IM and I won my first gold medal and then Mikaela had the 100 fly after that and she won her first gold medal, and they were both really cool, close races. It was just a really exciting moment.” 
  
Gaffney had taken six medals in her world championships debut in 2017, though none were gold, and she was eager to get over the hump. Jenkins, an Evansville, Indiana, native who was making her world championship debut in 2019, knew all about this history, and her excitement was palpable, even as she had her own race to get ready for.

“It was very encouraging for me because I knew that she really wanted to win,” Jenkins said. “And I think I asked (teammate) Erin Popovich, ‘Did Julia win, did Julia win?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah she did,’ and then I was like, ‘All right, I’m running to my call room,’ so it was really back-to-back, and it made me excited for my race.” 
  
Their bonding has been continuous since those world championships in London, whether it was in a Florida training camp or in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Gaffney would constantly drive the younger Jenkins to Target and they visited the Garden of the Gods. It’s especially the case when they push each other to strive for more in the pool. 

What is ironic is that to hear them tell it, they don’t share as many interests outside of swimming. 
  
“We are very different people but I think it’s like that whole thing that opposites attract,” Jenkins said. “We both get along very well but we have very different tastes in hobbies and music and that sort of thing.” 
  
“I think we kind of balance each other out,” said Gaffney. 
  
The real contrast is in how they train, in a sort of a “fire and ice” way. Gaffney is the serious-minded, hard-driving competitor while Jenkins is more of a free-wheeling, fun-loving opposite. And that may be where they have made their biggest contributions to each other. 
  
“Sometimes I get really serious in the water and Mikaela is kind of more laid back,” Gaffney said. “And she kind of helps make me laugh a lot and reminds me to have fun in practice too.” 
  
“Julia is the hardest worker I’ve ever met when it comes to swimming,” Jenkins said. “And a lot of times I tend to be a little bit too laid back. So seeing her like pushing really hard makes me (think), “‘OK, I’ve got to pick this up.’” 
  
The two have gotten to know each other’s families. While Jenkins has just one sibling in a younger brother, Gaffney grew up with four brothers and a sister, admitting that “growing up with a lot of boys can be a lot.” 
  
Having an effervescent friend like Jenkins is certainly a different dimension to that upbringing. 
  
“Mikaela has such a fun, energetic personality,” Gaffney said. “She’s just really bubbly and I just love that about her.” 
  
This year, the pair spent nearly three months together at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, with Jenkins visiting from Indiana and living next door to her friend. It has been a month since they have been apart, as they get ready to reunite ahead of the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials set for June 17-20 in Minneapolis, with cycling and track and field also taking place. 
  
The goal of reaching the Paralympics is close to becoming reality.  
  
“I think it would be just insane because very few people get to say that they’ve been on a Games team, whether it’s the Olympics or the Paralympics, let alone with one of your best friends,” Jenkins said. “And getting to both be in the same rooming area and then getting to experience all of that, it’s definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity, so it’s even better to have one of your closest friends with you.” 
  
That opportunity could have come last year had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic, which came right around the time they were together in that Florida training camp. Yet the extended time off has given them more time to develop their friendship, their technique in the pool and perhaps even increased their chances of success for the Tokyo Games. 
  
“I’m really, really excited and I’m so pumped and I think we’re going to do really great together,” Gaffney said. “We’re going to go in there and just kill it, and do the best we can.” 

 

Santosh Venkataraman

Santosh Venkataraman is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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