State of Courage: Amy’s new challenge

When Amy Van Dyken-Rouen arrived at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, the waiting room – filled with patients on crutches and sitting in wheelchairs – awakened.

Most in the crowded space recognized the six-time Olympic gold medalist, their faces lighting up. Those who didn’t looked up from their magazines and smart phones to assess the commotion.

Van Dyken-Rouen greeted everyone warmly, her loud voice ringing throughout the otherwise quiet office, causing even those working behind the counter to rise up from their chairs.

“How are you doing?” she asked a woman wearing a surgical mask.

“I’m doing great!” the woman said, almost boasting. “I had a double lung transplant in April!”

“Wow! That’s amazing!” Van Dyken-Rouen said, her wide eyes and raised eyebrows affirming her sincerity. “You guys are all amazing!”

It was vintage Van Dyken-Rouen.

Since she first exploded onto the international scene at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, her larger-than-life performances in the pool often have been outweighed by her enormous personality.

In truth, Van Dyken-Rouen’s journey to this moment is every bit as amazing as any other patient at Barrow. Just four months earlier, her life nearly ended in an ATV accident in Show Low, Ariz. When her husband, Tom Rouen, found her moments after the crash, her body was limp and she was not breathing.

After a Flight for Life helicopter delivered her to Scottsdale (Ariz.) Healthcare Osborn Medical Center, doctors determined her back was broken at the T-11 vertebrae, paralyzing her from the waist down. She also suffered four broken ribs, a severe concussion and four additional broken vertebrae.

But it’s not Van Dyken-Rouen’s way to dwell on the negative. She had, after all, overcome severe asthma to become an Olympic champion. Always unflinchingly boisterous and optimistic, she considers the cases of her fellow patients at Barrow to be far more serious than hers. She’s determined, once again, to meet and defeat a challenge.

“I want people to look at me and see that I’m still happy and enjoying life, and not being miserable,” she said. “As an athlete, I always took that role model role very seriously, and I take this inspirational role very, very seriously. If people can see me and get that extra push in their life from something I do, if it makes them feel better or helps them be a better person, I think that’s pretty flipping amazing.”

Finding herself at CSU

Van Dyken-Rouen was a star at Cherry Creek High School in metro Denver before becoming a 14-time All-American at the University of Arizona in just two seasons. She seemed to be on a path toward greatness, save for one detail: She was miserable.

“I was done swimming,” she said. “I came to Colorado State because I wanted to be a teacher and Arizona didn’t offer my major. I was going to be Ms. Van Dyken and teach high school biology to deaf students.”

When longtime CSU swimming coach John Mattos learned Van Dyken was taking classes – but not swimming – he paid her a visit. He convinced her to practice to see if she could reclaim her love of the pool.

“At Arizona she was surrounded by a lot of really great swimmers and had a lot of success, but she didn’t get the personal direction she needed,” Mattos said. “Amy needs that. Fortunately, we were able to provide her with that.”

In her first meet as a Ram, Van Dyken posted a time in the 50-yard freestyle that would have won the Western Athletic Conference title the previous spring. Before long she posted times that not only led the WAC, but the entire country.

In March 1994, Van Dyken won the 50 freestyle at the NCAA Championships, leading the Rams to a 12th-place finish. The athlete who nearly retired was named NCAA Female Swimmer of the Year.

The golden girl

Van Dyken left CSU after one year to focus on the Atlanta Olympics. There, she became an international sensation, winning gold medals in the 50 freestyle and 100, and helping two American relay teams to gold.

Despite her enormous success, some critics attacked her pre-race rituals races, calling them unsportsmanlike. Her actions – including staring at opponents and spitting pool water in the lane of rivals – were simply Amy being Amy.

Van Dyken was an instant international celebrity. She was featured on the cover of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, and on a special-edition Wheaties box. She made the talk-show circuit and signed numerous endorsement deals.

FastFactsShe met Rouen, a punter with the Denver Broncos, and opted to return to the pool to for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. After her second shoulder surgery in January of that year, she returned to her roots at CSU, asking Mattos to train her in the three months leading up to the U.S. Olympic Trials. Mattos, who by then was coaching Amy’s younger sister Katie at CSU, quickly agreed.

“Tom and I talked, and we decided I couldn’t do this and fail because I would be a laughing stock,” she said. “We knew John could get me ready in the shortest amount of time because he had done it before. I asked John at the conference championships, and he said, ‘Absolutely. See you Monday.’ That was it.”

“That’s just how John is. He’s not a yeller or a screamer, but you want to work for him. You want to be the best you can be for John because you don’t want to disappoint him.”

The Mattos-Van Dyken team once again prevailed. She won two relay gold medals in Sydney. With six Olympic gold medals, Van Dyken ranks as the second most decorated American female swimmer, trailing teammate Jenny Thompson, who has eight.

Only four women in history – regardless of sport – have won more Olympic gold medals.

“I don’t think anyone else has done what she’s done in CSU’s history – and that’s not belittling any other athlete,” Mattos said. “That’s just a testament to how good Amy was. She was special.”

A new life

Van Dyken retired following the 2000 games, and she and Rouen married. She began a highly successful career in local radio and seemed to be living a dream existence.

But everything changed on that June evening in the sleepy town of Show Low.

The original diagnosis of Van Dyken-Rouen’s injury – a “complete” break in the spinal cord at roughly her belly button – meant there was no chance she would ever walk again. Recent assessments, however, by her therapists at Barrow, have upgraded her diagnosis to “incomplete” – meaning there is hope.

By early October, her hip flexors and gluteal muscles were firing, and she had feeling in her lower abdomen and obliques. Her sessions at Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver and at Barrow, along with at least three weekly workouts at her local gym, were starting to pay off.

For those who have followed her career and watched her compete, her rehab sessions are vintage Amy. The pain on her face as physical therapist Al Biemond leads her through a grueling series of exercises is real. But then, so are the smiles, the sudden bursts of laughter.

In many ways, the work is harder than anything she did to prepare for the Olympics.

“I have to be competitive – this is for my life!” she said. “This is for me to be able to get up and walk again and have sensation below the site of injury again, to be able to get back things a lot of people take for granted. I have to push myself – I have no choice!”

Literally taking the next steps

If that day comes, and she is able to stand upright and move around sans wheelchair, Van Dyken-Rouen will be well into her next project. She’s already driving on her own, and her house has been reconfigured to make it Amy-friendly. Her life, she says, is good.

But the accident opened her eyes to the world of the handicapped and the challenges they face. She and Tom have dealt with doctors and insurance claims and rehab appointments and contractors – all of the obstacles the handicapped face.

“Our insurance company wasn’t going to pay for Flight for Life,” she said. “They don’t pay for equipment you need in your house to shower and go to the bathroom. A lot of people have been really amazing to me and helped me get my house ready, but there are thousands of injured people who have to come back from injuries like this, go through months of rehab and then figure out how to get things done.

That sparked an idea.

“I have to pay it forward,” she said.

Van Dyken-Rouen is working with her sister and others to create a foundation – Amy’s Army – to provide support for people with spinal cord injuries. A soon-to-be-launched website will offer T-shirts, with the proceeds from sales supporting grants to help people pay for basic home upgrades, unpaid insurance claims and the like.

In the meantime, her beloved CSU – where she found the right coach at the right time and rediscovered herself — is honoring her in a way no one else has been.

West Drive, which runs on the west side of the Administration Building, will be renamed Amy Van Dyken Way to honor her many accomplishments.

No other campus street has been named for a former CSU student. But then few students have accomplished – or aimed quite as high – as Amy.

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