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Wendy’s Runs, Movie Nights Break Up Training For Julia Gaffney At Olympic & Paralympic Training Center

By Ryan Wilson | Nov. 06, 2020, 1:41 p.m. (ET)

Julia Gaffney competes in Women's 200 m Individual Medley SM7-8 at the Para Swimming World Championship Mexico City 2017 on Nov. 7, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico. 

For Julia Gaffney, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant lots of time indoors sharing meals with her teammates.

Gaffney, in particular, loves the salmon days at the United States Olympic & Paralympic Training Center (OPTC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“They have fantastic salmon, good rice,” she said. 

Gaffney currently holds the S7 world record in the women’s 100-meter backstroke. She has been training at the OPTC on and off for two years, and she said the pandemic has forced her to evaluate her progress toward the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2021. 

The swimmer said she realized she was possibly putting too much pressure on herself as she chases her first-ever Paralympic Games.

“Last year, I took swimming pretty seriously,” she said. “This year, I’m trying to also have fun with it, have fun with my teammates.”

There are about 30 athletes in total — a mix of Olympians and Paralympians — at the Training Center right now. When they first come to the area, they must get tested twice, and they are not able to train until they get a negative test result. 

For the 12 swimmers, they have to wear masks on the pool deck, and when they lift. They are also split into groups. When they are in the pool, the men are on one side, and the women another side to prevent them from “breathing on each other.”

Gaffney said she is grateful to train alongside many Paralympic swimmers, like McKenzie Coan and Colleen Young. Coan is a two-time Paralympian and three-time Paralympic gold medalist. Young has competed in two Games, as well, and won one medal.

The swimmers like to grab food, including fast food from Chick-fil-A or Wendy’s, together on the weekends, and sit around and talk. They reserve Saturday nights for movies.

In her two years at the OPTC, Gaffney said she is healthier now than ever. She has access to sports psychologists, therapists, coaches and different kinds of pools. 

I feel very excited and confident going into this next year, just really training hard mentally. Once we get there, I’ll be ready.

“It’s really awesome here, because we’ve got long course,” she said. “The food here is super healthy and good for you.”

Gaffney most recently won a gold in the 200-meter individual medley in last year’s world championships. She finished 0.02 seconds ahead of U.S. teammate Mallory Weggemann. 

At this pace, there are high expectations for world champion Gaffney over the next year. Although she does not know when her next meet is, she is ready for Tokyo.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “Before COVID, we were gearing up for the Tokyo [Paralympic] trials. I was super excited, and I felt really ready. Then, of course, COVID happened, and it got postponed. It was a bummer, but I was like, ‘OK, you know what, I have one more year to get ready, not only physically, but mentally ready.’”

Gaffney said she has been focusing on her mental strength.

“I feel very excited and confident going into this next year, just really training hard mentally. Once we get there, I’ll be ready.”

In the pool, Gaffney is looking to build a consistent stroke, and improve her times in the 100-meter back, 50-meter butterfly and 400-meter free. She wants to know exactly what she will do once she dives off the starting blocks in Tokyo, and she will continue taking deep breathings, closing her eyes and visualizing her strokes before competing. 

Gaffney said the pandemic has allowed her to learn more about herself. 

“I think I’ve been able to learn that I am pretty flexible, and pretty strong,” she said. “I am getting mentally stronger to get through this. It has not been easy.”

While COVID has put a damper on her plans, so too has the odd weather in Colorado Springs. Gaffney is from Arkansas. Arkansas has mild winters, and Gaffney is able to enjoy being outdoors to fish, hike or go boating and kayaking. 

She is not a fan of the weather. Or the snow the Springs recently saw.

“We just got some snow, and I’ve kind of been hibernating in my room,” she said. “When I came up here, and it would snow in October, I was like, this is just wrong! And, of course, with the wet hair, wetsuit and the cold, it just doesn’t mix well.”

Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson is a writer and independent documentary filmmaker from Champaign, Illinois. He is a freelance contributor to USParaSwimming.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Julia Gaffney