Swimming gave Chris Gaffney a second chance at life, providing him with the conditioning to survive five heart surgeries within a three-year period.
Gaffney, a competitive swimmer since the age of 6, had collapsed on the pool deck during a training session for an important swim meet during his senior year of high school.
The meet was his final chance to impress recruiters at the NCAA Division I Universities that he had hoped to attend the following Fall. His rapid heart rate would force paramedics to revive him from near-death that day.
Today, the 27-year-old sits on a couch outside his office at British International School, Phuket (BISP), where he serves as the Assistant Coach of the High Performance Swim Team, and recalls the events that ultimately led him to help build Asia’s top school swim team.
“Swimming has clearly done so much more for me than I could have ever imagined. It’s given me a passion in my life and it’s given me a career. Through coaching, I am trying to give something back to this sport because it has done so much for me, let alone keeping me alive,” says the New Jersey native.
Doctors diagnosed Gaffney with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome (WPW) when he was 18 years old, a genetic disorder in which a person has an additional electrical pathway to their atria and ventricles in their heart, thus leading to an aggressively overactive heart.
In Gaffney’s case, he had two extra pathways that connected his right atrium to his right ventricle; according to his doctors, all of his years of swimming had strengthened his heart enough to keep his arteries from bursting that afternoon on pool deck, and allowed him to deal with the five surgeries that were to follow.
After two harrowing 13-hour procedures at a hospital in Philadelphia, Gaffney was still not right, so he sought help from one of the top electro-physiologists in the country, Dr. Francis E. Marchlinski.
It took Dr. Marchlinski three surgeries to finally fix the problem and according to his calculations, that is still the standing record for his 37-year career being a cardiac surgeon – some 98% of ablation procedures for WPW are successful the first time around.
Gaffney, who was 21 by then, had missed his high school graduation and had trained just enough to make sure he stayed in decent shape despite being on medication. Still, he never thought he would never get a chance to compete at a high level ever again.
This is why he was he so surprised when he got a phone call from Rick Walker, the Head Swimming and Diving Coach at Southern Illinois University (SIU), offering him a chance to join his team.
“I was absolutely blown away because I didn’t think it was going to happen, and so many other coaches never even gave me a chance to speak to them. Rick was so supportive in his approach and invited me to come out for a visit,” says Gaffney.
“When I left to return home, he said he wanted me because of my character. When you look back at all of the great coaches in sports, every single one of them talk about character when building a team, and they talk about having positive people around you.”
During his sophomore year at SIU, Gaffney was chosen as one of the team captains, a position he maintained whilst earning a degree in Physical Education. He would later tack on a masters degree in Kinesiology, specializing in sports psychology while coaching the SIU swim team as a graduate assistant.
Gaffney’s unique journey to Thailand has served him well as coach, and he reflects on the lessons learned during years of hardship and the coaches that have helped him along the way.
“I can sit here right now and tell you 100% that I would not be here in this position if it was not for the support that I had from my coaches and my teammates to keep pushing the limits of life.
“Rick Walker and John Carroll were two of the most influential people I had as a swimmer and as a growing man. Coaches have so much influence on an athlete’s life, more than they may think at times. I have adopted so much of my coaching philosophy from these two men and I owe them so much more than I could ever give them, so I do my best to make them proud of the coach and man I have become.
“With me, I look for my athletes to have passion, and to truly care not only about the results, but the process in which they are made. Finally, I look for them to be life-long learners. At BISP, we try our best to instill life values and lessons through the sport of swimming, and we let the results take care of themselves. However, sometimes the greatest results occur outside of the pool.”
For more information on the British International School, Phuket (BISP) JSA Swim Academy, visit: www.bisphuket.ac.th/bisp-jsa-swim-academy, www.facebook.com/swimphuket, or contact Head Coach Simon Jones: [email protected]. Assistant Coach Chris Gaffney can be reached at: [email protected]