Van Dyken-Rouen tells women not to let go, or give up

Amy Van Dyken-Rouen’s International Women’s Day message to the Women and Philanthropy’s Gather event at Colorado State University was to not let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do.

Van Dyken-Rouen, the former CSU swimmer who earned a combined six Olympic gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games, shared her story of perseverance throughout a lifetime of challenges highlighted by reaching the pinnacle of sporting achievement.

Asthma led to rehabilitation in the form of swimming as a girl. It took six years for her to swim a full lap. She barely made a team growing up, getting the 24th spot on a 24-person roster.

She just missed the 1992 Olympics and even a United States swim coach doubted Van Dyken’s abilities after a fourth-place finish in her first event at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. She went on to win two individual events and two relays to become the first U.S. female athlete to win four gold in one Olympics.

But she also had to come back from a shoulder injury to make the 2000 Games, during which she added two more gold medals. Later, she worked in television and radio and married former Denver Broncos punter Tom Rouen.

But in June 2014 after an ATV accident that severed her spine and left her with paraplegia, even Rouen uttered words she didn’t want to hear after a doctor told the couple to say their goodbyes before surgery.

“(Tom Rouen) said, ‘Hey Babe, if it’s too much I understand. You can let go,’” Van Dyken-Rouen said. “I couldn’t sit up, right, because my back’s broken. So, I had his hand and pulled him to me and he was really close to my face and I said, ‘Hey Babe, who are you to tell me what I can and can’t do?’”

Short Q&A with Amy Van Dyken-Rouen

After her keynote address on March 8, Van Dyken-Rouen answered questions from different CSU departments while a roundtable of four female CSU head coaches took place a floor below. The Gather event concluded with a presentation from Dr. Nicole Ehrhart, director of the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging at CSU.

A theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is gender equity. CSU has a female  president (Joyce McConnell) and a female provost (Mary Pedersen) plus many other women in leadership positions. Why?

“Well, I just think we have a different mindset at Colorado State. I don’t think we necessarily look at a human for their gender or are they able-bodied or are they disabled or are they whatever.

“I think we look at them as human beings and what those human beings bring to the table.

Amy Van Dyken-Rouen

“So, it’s not necessarily ‘I want to find a woman for this position,’ it’s ‘I want to find the best human being for this position.’ And I feel that Colorado State does that, and they do it so well. What we figured out early that (other) people are just now figuring out is that women are some of the most powerful individuals out there because we haven’t been given everything. We’ve had to fight for everything that we have and it trickles down through the generations and so, women now are powerful. They are more knowledgeable. They are athletic. They are just … perfection.”

Some high-profile Olympic athletes who are among the best in the world have had less-than-ideal results in the recent Summer and Winter Games. Why is it that elite athletes don’t get to have “off” days?

“I also feel that the general public looks at things like that and is like, ‘Oh, she choked.’ Do you know what I’m saying? And that’s not what it was at all. And I really wish that that word would come out of our vocabulary because it’s not what it is. But mental health is a huge part of it, and I really think that … when you win an Olympic gold medal, you’re not necessarily the best in the world, but you’re the best in the world that day, right, and that’s all you need. Was I the best in the world? Nope. That day I was.”

Women have risen into leadership in many sports endeavors, though not in the realm of women coaching men’s teams at the highest level. Do you think that situation, like CSU alum Becky Hammon, is the last glass ceiling to break?

“I think in Becky’s situation, coaching men, and coaching men’s basketball – people are kind of freaking out a little bit because it’s never been done. But there’s always something that’s never been done and someone does it first. So, I think she is going to do it. She’s going to be a rock star at it. I think that the perception back in the day was that men will not listen to a woman. And that is a bunch of hoo-ha. If you are married, you know that is a bunch of hoo-ha. So, I think that’s transitioning. … We’ve got female (officials) for football now. Again, men aren’t going to listen to women? Trust me, they do.”

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