PLATTSBURGH - Karen Gaffney has always believed there's nothing she can't do. Now, she can add swimming across Lake Champlain to her list of achievements.
Despite being born with Down syndrome, a chromosomal disorder which affects hundreds of thousands of people in the United States alone, Gaffney has challenged herself to show people living with Down syndrome are able to do many of the same things people without the condition can do. Her latest evidence came as she stepped upon the shore of Plattsburgh City Beach Sept. 18, after swimming more than 8.5 miles across Lake Champlain from South Hero, Vt., adding to her list of completed aquatic challenges that includes swimming across Lake Tahoe, Boston Harbor and the English Channel.
"It was something new and different and I love doing something new and challenging," said the 39-year-old Gaffney, who also suffers from hip dysplasia.
Escorted across the lake by a team of pacers - swimming alongside her and on kayak, boat and jet skis - Gaffney completed her personal challenge in less than six hours. However, it was an easier challenge than her lifelong battle to overcome the feeling of being different, she said.
When she addressed a crowd of more than 1,200 people the following day at Melissa L. Penfield Park, during the 13th annual Buddy Walk, Gaffney spoke about how much more of a challenge living with Down syndrome can be.
"Classrooms, school hallways, cafeterias and gyms can be pretty lonely places for people like me. Once we're all out of school it can be even lonelier," she said. "I'd like to sit at a table in a cafeteria and have others sit down next to me rather than pass me by or get up when I sit down. I would like to look up and see a friendly smile rather than look up and see someone look away."
Though acceptance and understanding of people living with Down syndrome has grown, there is still stigma in the world and ignorance of the ability of someone with the disorder. That's one of the reasons Cindy Rotz organizes the Buddy Walk each year with her husband, Tracy, in honor of their son, Brett, who has Down syndrome. The Rotzes are working to break down the negative barriers that stand in the way of people like their son, Gaffney, and countless others.
"We want everyone to see their abilities, not their disabilities," said Cindy Rotz. "It's important we bring people like Karen in to see all the great things people with Down syndrome are able to do. Everyone can learn from her."
"What Karen does shows people if you put your mind to something and you work hard, regardless of who you are or what you have or don't have, you can persevere if you put the work in," said Tracy Rotz. "She's done a ton for our walk and hopefully she's brought more attention [to Down syndrome] and has given them more understanding."
The most important message Gaffney wanted people to take home was physical differences many often associate with Down syndrome don't define what someone with Down syndrom can do or who they are, she said.
"I know on the outside we look different, we talk differently, we walk differently. But, on the inside, we're more like you," Gaffney told the crowd. "We want the same things you do. We want good friends. We want to belong. Just taking a seat next to me can make a big difference."
"We all want to have friends to share things with, learn things from and blame things on," she added, laughing. "So, you see, we are probably more alike than we are different."