DENVER -- Each new day brings new opportunities. And for an Olympic champion who has risen from adversity before, it’s the opportunity to meet her toughest challenge yet.
Amy Van Dyken-Rouen made a name for herself by winning six gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 games. Her husband, Tom Rouen, said, “She took winning for the United States very, very serious.”
Now she is serious about recovering from an ATV accident nearly a year ago that injured her spinal cord and left her paralyzed from the waist down.
“I figured it was a 50-50 deal if she was going to make it or not, it was a bad accident," Tom Rouen said.
She and her husband, a former Broncos punter, invited us to spend a day with them in Arizona just as she was making some remarkable progress.
The Olympic Hall of Famer is still tough as nails, but she has a smile on her face. She jokes during her rehab at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph Hospital in Phoenix.
She said, “I feel like Robocop. We’re just filming the new terminator, don’t worry about it.”
For the first time since the accident, she was able to move her thigh muscle.
“I’m actually kicking my leg out by myself so it’s using my thigh muscle. It’s a huge deal in walking," she said. "We had a moment. Al got so excited. I’ve been working with him for a year and never seen him get excited."
Al Biemond has been Amy’s physical therapist since September. He said her positive attitude and her drive to succeed are huge.
“That is something we want from all of our patients, that drive to change and improve, her's definitely plays a positive part of this," Biemond said. "She keeps changing for the better so we keep pushing her. If we keep seeing changes, and those things keep happening, anything is possible.”
Amy recently graduated from walking with a walker to using crutches. She does demanding physical therapy three days a week for two hours at a time. And she does it all with a smile.
“You know like my neurosurgeon said, I’m walking through hell with a smile on my face," Van Dyken-Rouen said.
This is a side of Van Dyken-Rouen that people didn’t see when she was competing, a side she is happy to share now.
“I am thankful now people get to see the real me," Van Dyken-Rouen said. "It’s nice because people have an image of me that I was intimidating and would be afraid to come up and say hi.”
She is very active on social media, saying, “The positive feedback I started getting ... it really started helping me. It was amazing one comment would really help me get through the day. I started posting to be selfish. I hate to say this, I didn’t really care what I was putting out there, I cared what I got back at that moment. I was getting so much of people saying they were praying for me, they were pulling for me. How can you give up when you have that?”
Amy was recently named Captain of “Team Reeve”, to help raise money for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and to raise awareness about spinal cord injuries. She also runs the Amy Van Dyken Foundation and Amy’s Army. They give necessary medical equipment to spinal cord injury patients who couldn’t otherwise afford it. She said, “I was horrified so I thought so many people had helped me, so I needed to give back.”
She also shares her story to help others. She doesn’t like to be called an inspiration, but she does like to help.
She said, “I hate to say use my pain to make you feel better, but that’s kind of what you do. I don’t know if inspiration is a word I like to use for myself. Kooky is a word I would use for myself, dorky, I wouldn’t use the word inspiration. I look at it and think if me living my life and sharing my story with people, if it makes them feel better about their day, then that’s what I guess I am here for.”
Amy is feeling better each day and hopes to be walking a year from now.
The former Olympic swimmer is showing her championship attitude. She told us, “You don’t have an option. You don’t have an option to take a day off. When you’re there, you don’t have an option to do it halfway. You have to do it 100 percent. If you don’t do it 100 percent why bother showing up? When I was training, I said you have to give 100 percent because someone across the world is giving 110 percent you can’t ever back down. But now it’s for my life. You always give 100 percent. You never back down There is no option of not showing up.”
Her dog Kuma has been a huge part of her recovery ... and has quite the personality of his own. See him in the video clip below.
To hear Tom and Amy recount the tragic day of her accident, watch this video clip: