Arkansas’ Julia Gaffney shines at World Para Swimming Champs, looks ahead to Paris
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
“Growing up, I didn’t really see myself differently,” says Paralympic swimmer Julia Gaffney, who opened competition at this week’s 2023 Para Swimming World Championships with a silver medal in the women’s 200-meter individual medley SM7. The 24-year-old from Mayflower, Arkansas, competing at her fourth World Championships in Manchester, England, this week, has always been competitive. “I loved beating people with legs,” she says. Yet swimming in the Paralympics – and winning two bronze medals in the Tokyo Games – has taken Gaffney’s competitive spirit to new heights. As she gears up for Paris in 2024, she has one goal: “I think I just want to prove myself that I can win gold.”
Adopted from Russia at age five, Gaffney grew up in a house with four brothers. “My brothers pushed me, and I wanted to be better than my brothers and faster and stronger,” Gaffney says. “When we played football I would tackle them and they would tackle me, so I think I was just better for it.” Gaffney grew up playing multiple sports, from basketball to gymnastics, and was the only girl on a baseball team with one of her brothers.
When Gaffney was around 14, her mom, who swam in college, enrolled her in a summer swimming league. Gaffney had always loved being in the water – “I was the kid that would do belly flops until I made myself sick,” she says – and she took to competitive swimming right away. She joined a year-round club team soon after, and says of her coach at the time, Tony Marleneanu, “He did such a good job of treating me like everyone else.”
Nearly a decade later, after stints training in California and Colorado, Gaffney is back in Arkansas training with her old coach, Marleneanu. Gaffney says that her hometown of Mayflower, just a short drive from Little Rock, is a close-knit, small community that’s always been supportive of her Paralympic journey. “After Tokyo, Mayflower threw a whole parade for me. They all came together to celebrate, which was super cool.”
Gaffney knows that the Paris Paralympic experience is going to be even bigger than Tokyo, and though she’s a little nervous that there will be people there watching – including her parents, Kristin and Dan – she’s also excited. “I think it’s going to help that I already had a Games experience,” she says.
That first experience was marked by memories both good and bad. Although Gaffney took home medals in two races, she was disqualified in another, the 200m Individual Medley. “I let myself have that day to kind of be sad and upset and dwell on it a little bit. And then the next day, I felt like I just had to kind of forget it, and then just switch onto the next thing. I really wanted to get on that podium.” And she did, with a bronze in the 400 m freestyle S7 and in the 100 m backstroke S7.
In the leadup to the 2023 World Championships and the 2024 Paralympics, Gaffney has focused on two key priorities: healing and motivation. She’s been dealing with a scapula injury for a bit more than a year. “Mentally it’s been challenging because I’m so used to just pushing it in the water,” she says. As for her second objective, swimming has always enabled Gaffney to get out the anger and frustration she says she felt as a kid going through adoption. “After Tokyo, I’ve been in therapy, and I’m not as angry. And so there are days where I almost don’t feel as motivated to swim, because that’s kind of what was fueling me. So right now I’m trying to find a way to just fall back in love with the sport.”
The success she’s had so far at these World Championships likely helps. Gaffney was in 4th in the final stretch of the 200m IM but powered through the freestyle portion to return to the international podium.
“I knew going into the race that the last 50-meter freestyle was going to matter the most,” Gaffney told USA Para Swimming after the race. “At that point, I was like ‘okay, I’ve got to go,’ and really put my head down and was able to finish strong.”
When Gaffney thinks back to Tokyo, she says that some of the best moments were seeing her teammates succeed. “To hit the wall and turn around and see that I got bronze, and then McKenzie Coan get gold, the high was crazy,” Gaffney says.
The moment was a powerful culmination for two friends, teammates, and competitors. The first time Gaffney saw Coan swimming freestyle, she went up to her and told her she had a beautiful stroke. They’ve since trained together and faced off against one another; competitors in the pool but best friends outside.
“We pushed each other,” Gaffney says. “We were very competitive with each other.”
Regardless of what happens in Paris or thereafter, Gaffney says she loves the relationships she has built throughout the years. “When my swimming career is over, even if I don’t win another medal, I know I will have those friendships forever,” she says. Yet in the meantime, Gaffney relishes swimming in the Paralympics. “To be able to go into that Para world and just see other people like me was so cool. To be able to swim with those people who are amazing athletes, it’s such an honor.”
Coverage of the World Para Swimming Championships continues through August 12th, streaming live on Peacock, NBCSports.com and the NBCSports App, with TV coverage available on CNBC. See below for a full tune-in schedule.
|Mon., July 31
|Tues., August 1
|Wed., August 2
|Thurs., August 3
|Fri., August 4
|Sat., August 5
|Sun., August 6
|Sat., August 12
* *Encore presentation on CNBC