At Just 18, Swimmer Julia Gaffney Is Already A Six-Time World Championship Medalist

By Alex Abrams | Aug. 07, 2018, 11:46 a.m. (ET)

Julia Gaffney won six medals at the World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City.

Julia Gaffney hasn’t gotten around to properly displaying the six medals she earned at last year’s World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City.

Until she finds a place for them — perhaps in her family’s house in Mayflower, Arkansas — Gaffney has her five silver medals and one bronze tucked away inside a small plastic container.

“I’m trying to hang them up,” she said, “but I haven’t gotten there yet.”

Gaffney wasn’t sure she deserved a spot at the world championships, let alone a handful of medals. She was 17 years old at the time and had been swimming competitively for only two years.

The teenager was excited to simply see her last name printed on the side of a Team USA swim cap.

However, Gaffney’s breakout performance in Mexico gave her the confidence to believe she can keep up with the world’s top Para swimmers despite being a relative newcomer to the sport.

“There was definitely a kind of second-guessing myself like, ‘Should I really be there? Now I just kind of barely made it.’” Gaffney said. “But I think I was like, ‘You know what? You’re here so you need to race the best that you can,’ and that’s what I did.

“I’m a very competitive person.”

Gaffney is so competitive she hopes to do more than simply medal in all six events she’s competing in at the 2018 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Cairns, Australia. The international meet runs from Aug. 9-13.

One of her goals is to break the S7 world record in the 100-meter backstroke, which Canadian swimmer Shelby Newkirk set last December with a time of 1:21.43.

“I just always want to see what’s the best I can do and just not settle for, ‘Oh, I went to this meet.’” Gaffney said. “It’s great I went to this meet. Now what’s the next step?”

Her confidence isn’t swayed by the fact that she has never clocked 1:21.43 in the 100-meter backstroke, not even in practice.

Gaffney said she’s less than a second off the world record, and she’d like to add a few gold medals to her growing collection inside her small plastic container.

“Julia and I went 1-2 last year at the world championships,” said fellow American swimmer Sophia Herzog, who edged Gaffney for gold in the 100 breaststroke. “It’s an incredible honor to be on the podium, but to be able to share it with another teammate is even better.

“I hope we repeat it here in Australia.” 

The 18-year-old Gaffney won’t graduate from high school until December, but she’s already being talked about as one of the new faces of American Para swimming.

She’s both confident that she can break world records and fueled by a sense of self-doubt. She always feels she has something to prove to herself.

Born in Russia, Gaffney has had to adjust to life with her right leg amputated above the knee and her left leg amputated below the knee. Swimming has given her a sense of freedom from the prosthetic legs she wears outside of the pool.

“It’s definitely the feeling that I can just take my legs off, which is my disability, and I can just jump in the water and there I don’t feel my disability,” she said.

Gaffney has always been drawn to water. She remembers a time when she was around 6 years old and kept belly-flopping into a hotel pool with her family.

The teenager stands 5-foot-3 with her prosthetic legs and around 4-foot without them. She uses her arms to carry herself around the pool deck and then help her glide through the water during races.

“My legs are great,” Gaffney said, “but I just love having them off and not wearing them.”

Now that she’s training in the pool seven days a week, Gaffney gets to spend a lot less time on her legs. She swims 2.5 hours every morning in addition to two-hour afternoon practices twice a week.

Gaffney’s hope is to make even more of a name for herself at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. In January, after she graduates from high school, she plans to move to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to continue her training.

“I still feel very new to this. I’m very eager to learn as much as I can every time I race and go to these big meets,” Gaffney said. “I definitely don’t feel like a veteran, but I feel like I kind of know what I’m doing.”

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