October 11, 2014 / 5:28 PM / 3 years ago

Van Dyken's spirit still shines despite accident

(Reuters) - Olympic champion swimmer Amy Van Dyken does not remember the all-terrain vehicle accident that severed her spine.

Former Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen poses for a photo as she sits in her wheelchair and listens to Usher perform on NBC's "Today Show" in the Manhattan borough of New York in this September 5, 2014, file photo. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/Files

Her husband sure does.

“I knew she was going to be hurt,” said Tom Rouen. “It was just a matter of how bad. You never think of this scenario. You’re hoping she might have broken a wrist or a shoulder.”

Van Dyken was speeding on her ATV after dinner on a clear June evening in Show Low, Arizona, when she tumbled over a curb and fell about eight feet into the forest below. Rouen, who spent 10 years in the National Football League as a punter, jumped off his ATV and raced to her side.

Rouen was horrified by his wife’s lifeless body.

“She was dead,” he recalled in a telephone interview with Reuters. “When I got there, she wasn’t breathing. She was face-down, completely out. It was a bad deal. It was scary.”

When Rouen gently rolled her over -- fearing her neck was broken -- and began performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), she came to life. Barely. She started to gasp for air and went into convulsions. Her eyes were going in two different directions.

Van Dyken was airlifted to a trauma center in Scottsdale, Arizona, scarcely alive. The 41-year-old, six-time Olympic gold medalist emerged from surgery paralyzed from the waist down.

Her body is broken, her spirit unaffected.

“I‘m doing great,” she told Reuters. “Every day is a new day, and it’s a great day. I‘m happy to be here. I‘m happy to be alive. So mentally, I‘m doing really well.”

Physically, Van Dyken has muscle spasms and near-constant back pain. She spends most of her time in a wheelchair, unless she is working with a bionic exoskeleton, a motorized device that essentially does the walking for her.

But she has become adept at taking her wheelchair apart, putting it in the front seat of her car and driving away. She makes dinner and straightens the house.

The fact that she has made it this far is an accomplishment but Van Dyken is confident better times are ahead.

She is getting movement in her hip flexors and the surrounding muscles, a jaw-dropping achievement for someone in her condition.

”I look back at the Olympics and no one thought I was supposed to win six gold medals and here I am, holding them,“ she said. ”If you’re telling me I can’t walk, so maybe this is the same thing. Let’s work on it. Every single time I go to therapy, that’s what we’re working on.

“I would like to walk under my own power and I think absolutely that will happen.”

GOLDEN GAMES

Van Dyken overcame severe asthma to win the 50-meter freestyle and 100m butterfly at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and also was on two winning relays, becoming the first U.S woman to win four golds at one Olympics.

Four years later, she added two more Olympic relay golds at the Sydney Games.

Swimmer Dara Torres, a former Olympic teammate of Van Dyken‘s, said “if anyone can deal with a situation like this, it’s her.”

”I‘m sure she’s affecting tons of people because she’s so inspiring,“ Torres, a 12-time Olympic medalist, told Reuters. ”Despite what she’s been through, she’s like, ‘Well, this is just another obstacle, I‘m going to overcome it.’

“That’s always been her attitude, so positive.”

Four months ago, Van Dyken was so close to death that, prior to her emergency surgery, doctors wheeling her into the operating room told her to say good-bye to her husband.

“I told Tom it was OK if he dated again,” she said softly. “He looked at me and said, ‘If this is ever too much for you, you can go ahead and let go.’ It was the reality at the time.”

She admits to being more spiritual since the accident.

“I came back from death, definitely one time, and dodged it another time during surgery,” she said. “You have to go, ‘There is something that is wanting me to be here.’ I have to respect that.”

Van Dyken advises people to “live every single day like it can be your last.”

“Make sure you kiss your husband, or your wife, and your kids every day,” she said. “Live every day for what it is. Enjoy it. When you wake up in the morning, be excited for that day.”

Van Dyken said she has always been a fan of the Paralympic Games and will be there in Rio de Janeiro in two years -- but as a spectator.

“Hey, I‘m 41. No one wants to see this hot mess in a swimsuit,” she said with a laugh.

Reporting by Steve Ginsburg, editing by Gene Cherry

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