Julia Gaffney Has A New Training Location And New Classification But The Same Big Goals At Worlds

By Karen Price | Sept. 09, 2019, 6:54 a.m. (ET)

Julia Gaffney is one of 17 Team USA athletes competing at the World Para Swimming Championships in London from Sept. 9-15.

Julia Gaffney was just 17 years old and a relative newcomer to the Para swimming scene when she won six medals at the 2017 world championships.


Now competing in a new class and living at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Gaffney is ready for her return trip and hopefully a third color for her medal collection.


“I got five silvers and one bronze so I’m definitely looking for a gold at this world championships,” Gaffney said by phone from London, where the World Para Swimming Championships will be held Sept. 9-15. 


Gaffney has her right leg amputated above the knee and her left leg amputated below the knee. Two years ago, she was competing in the S8/SB7/SM8 class. While not everyone in every class looks the same or has the exact same disabilities, Gaffney explained, she was competing against athletes such as 23-time Paralympic medalist Jessica Long, who has two below-the-knee amputations. 


In October 2017, however, World Para Swimming announced a new classification process that would take effect Jan. 1, 2018, and that ultimately would impact Gaffney. Officials measured her and then watched her compete in the 100-meter backstroke.


“When they watched that they came up to me and said, ‘We think you belong to the S7 class because there’s something with your hips where you can’t quite kick very well with the one long leg,’” she said. “So that was basically how I got classified down.”


She’s now in the S7/SB6/SM7 class, competing against Paralympians such as McKenzie Coan and Mallory Weggemann.


“It’s definitely changed, but it did not change my goals at all,” she said. “The time standards get a little slower, but I still want to reach my goals and I just want to get faster every time I’m in the water.”


Gaffney moved to Team USA’s flagship training center in January following her high school graduation. Although the transition hasn’t always been easy with missing family and maintaining a schedule that includes two-a-day sessions in the pool and online college classes, she’s seeing results.


“I really like (head coach) Nathan Manley and to be able to compete and train with other people that have the same goals as me is really cool, too,” she said. “I have access to massages and weight training and the food is really good, really healthy, so definitely this year my health has been really good. And I’m swimming really well and was able to get that world record in the 100 backstroke.”


Ah yes, that record. 


Gaffney had been eyeing that one for a while. Held by Canada’s Shelby Newkirk, who had lowered her own record down to 1:19.99, Gaffney had been close for some time heading into the World Para Swimming World Series stop in Indianapolis in April, and breaking that mark was a goal going into the competition. 


“I knew time-wise I could get it, it was just mentally I needed to do it,” she said. “I remember, to me, the morning swim was the most important because if I was able to drop from my best time, I knew I could get it in the evening and that’s what I did. I dropped about a second and then I knew I could get it because it felt really easy.”


Her result in the morning set a new American record, then in the evening she swam the event in 1:19.47 to set her very first world record.


“I touched the wall and looked up at the board and saw the time and I was so excited I splashed the water,” she said. 


Gaffney admits to putting a lot of pressure on herself — at times maybe too much — but another part of the 19-year-old’s maturation has been learning to stay positive and remembering to have fun. 


“There are times where practice doesn’t go well and I get really upset and think about it the rest of the day, but I think I just have to be like, ‘Hey, it’s one practice, it’s OK, next morning is a new day,’ and also just remind myself why I do it, and that’s because I fell in love with the sport and because I’m able to take my legs off and feel that freedom in the water.”


At these world championships she hopes to break her own record in the 100-meter backstroke and she’d also like to win gold in the 200-meter individual medley. She’ll be racing in six events again and overall wants to drop time and do the best she can.


After worlds she’ll take a couple weeks off, she said, then return to the training center, get ready for nationals and then in January begin really ramping up for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. Gaffney said she can already feel the energy building in anticipation of next year.


“I’m getting very excited,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s only one year away. It’s just a really fun time, everyone’s excited and I just want to swim fast every time I get in the water.”


Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.