Julia Gaffney wanted to play softball originally but thought that, given her circumstances, it would have been too difficult. She had taken swimming lessons when she was younger and saw that as a possible way to become active in sports. “I always loved the water and was pretty natural at swimming,” she said.

The 18-year-old from Arkansas underwent a double amputation at an early age. Her right leg was amputated above the knee as a result of proximal femoral focal deficiency, a birth defect that affects the hip bone and proximal femur. Her left leg was amputated below the knee as a result of having fibular hemimelia, the congenital absence of the fibula. Over the years, she has undergone a number of surgeries.

Swimming has been a great sport for her. “I am able to take my legs off and be free,” Gaffney said. “In the water, I don’t feel my disability.” Her first experience with swimming took place in 2014, when she joined two summer leagues at a local park. A year later, she began competition. Her swim team is comprised of able bodied swimmers and it was her mom that found out about Paralympic swimming. Her first Paralympic trial took place at the Endeavor Games, hosted by the University of Central Oklahoma’s Center of Adaptive Sports, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. She got classified there and ended up participating in five events.

“It was my first time I was around other people with disabilities and it was really cool to swim against them,” she said.

Gaffney would go on to compete in California, where she met four-time Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long, one of the winningest Paralympians in U.S. history. “She inspires me a lot. It was super cool to stand on the podium with her in Mexico City (at the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships, where Julia also medaled). She has given me various tips to improve my swimming,”

It was also there that long-time Paralympic swim coach Queenie Nichols encouraged Julia to keep swimming.

Gaffney became a member of Disabled Sports USA’s E-Team in 2016, which is designed to support and empower emerging young athletes (ages 13-24) with disabilities who are training competitively in sports that are featured in the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games.

Her best events are the 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, and 100m breaststroke. She particularly enjoys the 100m backstroke and 100m breaststroke. “The freestyle stresses me out,” she said.

In a relatively short period of time, Gaffney has medaled at the World Championship level over a half dozen times. She earned a gold medal at the 2017 World Para Swimming World Series. Recently, she also received her national A time (the highest standard) in Cincinnati in the 200 IM (individual medley), which sets her up for Pan-Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Australia, the biggest meet this year.

The high school senior, who is home schooled, may graduate early (in January 2019) and then hopes to head to Colorado Springs for training. Gaffney wants to compete at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. “My goal is to make the team and do the best I can, with a chance to medal,” she said. 

Training takes place five days a week, sometimes twice daily. Dryland workouts last about 30 minutes and may feature running, planks, pushups, or abs. In the pool, she will typically swim 6,000 to 9,000 yards on any given day working on different strokes. “Every day is a different,” Gaffney said. “Sometimes we focus on distance and sometimes we work on speed.” Prior to a competition, she focuses on staying calm before the race and getting into her zone.

She recently got reclassified, so her times are different. From a competitive standpoint, she is making the adjustment, but she is up for the competition. “My parents told me that I was super active and very athletic as a child. I would always try to beat my brothers (all four of them),” she said.