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Free in the water

Mayflower teen makes world Paralympics swim team

By Tammy Keith

This article was published August 27, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.

Julia Gaffney of Mayflower, a double congenital amputee, gets ready to practice with the Hendrix Aquakids in Conway. The 17-year-old has been selected to represent Team USA at the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City from Sept. 30 to Oct. 6.

Julia Gaffney of Mayflower had no choice about being born without legs, but she did decide how to live life with the disability.

Buoyed by her determination and competitive spirit, the 17-year-old became an accomplished swimmer.

She is one of 22 U.S. athletes who will represent Team USA in the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships, which will be Sept. 30 to

Oct. 6 in Mexico City. The U.S. Paralympics is a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Gaffney swims and competes with Aquakids at Hendrix College in Conway, but she also competes individually in U.S. Paralympics events four to eight times a year, said her mother, Kristin Gaffney. Paralympics are so named, Kristin said, because they are “parallel to” the U.S. Olympics. Paralympians have a range of disabilities and swim in different categories.

Kristin and her husband, Dan, adopted Julia from a Russian orphanage when she was 5. They also have five other children, including twins who are also adopted.

“She has always loved to swim. Even one of the workers at the orphanage told us she would always try to swim in the bathtub,” Kristin said, laughing. “We went to a hotel after we adopted her that had a pool. She was crazy, … in the water, in and out and in and out.”

Julia said that although she remembers being adopted, she doesn’t remember being in Russia. She definitely remembers the first time she swam.

“I remember I went to a swimming pool and did lots of belly flops and got sick,” Julia said.

She started competing in summer 2014 with the Maumelle Marlins, a community-level recreational team, and swam in summer 2015 with the team, too.

In fall 2015, she joined the Hendrix Aquakids, a year-round team and part of the USA Swimming organization, Kristin said.

“She’s very competitive — she likes to win, likes to be first, likes to be fast,” Kristin said.

She just barely missed making the Rio Olympics last year, her mother said. Julia needed to be top three and make her qualification time, as well as be selected by a committee. She made her qualification time in a race, but she was fourth, so she didn’t get to go.

Julia said she set her sights on the championships in

Mexico City. Her selection event, the one she ranked highest in, was the 100-meter freestyle. Her next best is the 400-meter freestyle.

She is coached by Aquakids coach Tony Marleneanu of Maumelle.

“This year, this was my focus, and Coach Tony was like, “Oh, you’re going to make the team.’ I thought if I didn’t make Rio, I wasn’t going to make Worlds. People were taking a break after Rio. I swam really hard and made it,” she said. At the trials, she swam five events.

“I would say my two favorite events are the 400 free and 200 Individual Medley — you do all four strokes. My favorite stroke is — honestly, I think it’s back stroke,” she said.

Marleneanu said Julia is a “natural athlete” and easy to coach.

“She understand the tips and techniques you give her right away,” he said.

“She’s still pretty new to the sport; that’s why [making the world team] is amazing, because she just started with the recreational league here in Maumelle,” he said.

Coaching a swimmer with disabilities was new to Marleneanu. When Kristin asked him to coach Julia in Paralympic events, he said the only thing he asked was that the Gaffneys not expect her to get special treatment, and they wholeheartedly agreed.

“She’s a fun swimmer; she’s smiling all the time. She’s very confident; she’s very happy,” Marleneanu said. “She does all the practices, and she’s very talented. She knew how to swim all the strokes when she joined the team, which is amazing.

“She’s very strong in her upper body; her arms are very strong. She has a beautiful technique.”

In her day-to-day life, Julia usually wears prosthetics, one above-knee; one below-knee. Sometimes she feels unsteady walking, especially up or down hills, she said. But when she takes off her prosthetics and dives into the water, she glides on an even keel with everyone.

“I feel free in the water,” Julia said. “I don’t feel my disability as much, just because I can take [the prosthetics] off and use my arms.”

Swimmers use their legs and feet, too, but she compensates.

“A guy asked me, ‘Wow, how did you learn such good flip turns to push off so hard without having feet?’ I said, ‘I don’t know; I just trained.’”

Julia has never been one to sit on the sidelines. She has also played league baseball and softball, gone to basketball camps, tried gymnastics and played football with her brothers.

“I played other sports, and I was good at them, but there was a point I got only so far because of my prosthetics,” she said. Plus, swimming rose to the top of her priorities.

“I remember when I used to play softball and baseball with my brothers; I was so into it,” Julia said. “Then once I started swimming, they’d say, ‘You want to play catch?’ [I’d say], ‘Not really.’”

Eddy York, president of the Mayflower Area Chamber of Commerce, helped coach Julia in youth baseball.

“Julia is absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, an inspiration to so many,” he said. “I am very blessed to have helped coach her in her youth, but I am more blessed to know the Gaffney family. What an amazing family.”

Julia said the Mayflower community has been supportive, too, and she rarely hears negative comments about her physical condition.

“Most people are pretty accepting of me,” she said.

Kristin said that during swim practice with the AquaKids, when Julia takes off her prosthetics, “nobody thinks twice about it anymore.”

She recalled that once when she and Julia were shopping, Julia was wearing shorts, and her prosthetic legs caught the attention of a young boy.

“He turned and said, ‘Dad, look, she has robot legs.’ That was the one thing she just hated,” Kristin said, referring to the robot description. “Then [the boy] said, ‘That is so cool!’ Julia started to laugh.”

Julia, who describes herself as “pretty outgoing,” is home-schooled, which she said works well for her.

“It gives me a lot of flexibility around swiming and stuff like that,” she said.

When she’s not swimming or studying, she enjoys listening to music. “I like to listen to Christian songs — Switchfoot, Need to Breathe — and some rap songs, I like,” she said.

“I love fishing. I like to read, too. I do a lot of things with other people, family or friends,” Julia said.

Her favorite swimmer is five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky.

“She’s pretty cool; she’s a 400 freestyler, too,” Julia said. “A lot of other Para people, they inspire me, too,” she said, including Camille

Berbue of Canada. “We’re in the same classification; she inspires me a lot.”

Julia said she and her mother will leave Sept. 16 for Mexico City so Julia can train for two weeks to get used to the altitude, which is 7,382 feet.

“That’s partially why we did the trials in Colorado. Hopefully, when I get up to Mexico City, [the altitude] will not affect me as much,” she said.

Her goal is to win a medal at the World Championships. That’s just the beginning, though.

“I’m hoping that in 2020 [at the Summer Olympics] in Tokyo, that I, first, will make the team and, second, medal. That would be awesome. I feel like if I make Tokyo and I medal, or I do really well, I will shoot for 2024,” she said.

And this teenager doesn’t believe anything’s out of reach.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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