Amy Van Dyken-Rouen shows that with perseverance and heart anything is possible.
There are hardly words to describe the pure joy and sense of satisfaction one feels when they are doing something they truly love. We all thrive off of doing what makes us happiest, whether it be running outside, cooking an elaborate meal, traveling to foreign countries, or simply reading a good book. But what happens when it’s all taken away?
That question became reality for six-time Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken-Rouen when she severed her spinal cord in an ATV accident, leaving her paralyzed. Since then, Van Dyken-Rouen has made amazing strides, both physically and personally, finding joy and purpose in things she would have never expected before.
For the Love of Swimming
It was swimming that brought Van Dyken-Rouen true happiness, and not because she had a natural gift or because her abilities made her a star. A severe asthmatic, Van Dyken-Rouen had a difficult time growing up with her condition until a doctor suggested she try swimming to help build her lung capacity. She joined her first swim team at the age of six.
“The thing I love most about swimming is that I was not good at it right away,” says Van Dyken-Rouen. “It took me six years to finish one length of the pool, so I was awful, but I loved it so much that I kept going back to it.”
Van Dyken-Rouen was never one to give up and always aimed for the stars. For years, she worked tirelessly to overcome her asthma and truly excel at the sport that had taught her about friendship, teamwork and her own capability to put mind over matter.
The Road to the Olympics
Many swim practices later, Van Dyken-Rouen found herself on the road to the 1996 Olympics; a long and bumpy one due to her asthma. In order for her to be allowed to participate in the Olympics, and remain healthy and on top of her game, she had to spend months experimenting with different asthma medications that were within the legal limits set forth by the Olympic Committee.
“It’s funny, a lot of people ask me what’s the one thing that I would change about myself, and I never say my asthma. It’s one of those things where, yeah it absolutely stunk, but it made me who I am and it made me persevere,” says Van-Dyken Rouen.
Her perseverance certainly paid off at the Olympics. She competed in five events, swimming a total of ten times over seven days, and took home an outstanding four gold medals.
“When you get that medal around your neck and hear the national anthem being played for you and see all the cameras surrounding you, you know there are tons of people celebrating our country because of something you just did. And not only that, but accomplishing a lifelong goal, it is such a surreal feeling,” says Van Dyken-Rouen.
The thrill of competing at her highest level and the pure euphoria and sense of accomplishment she felt knowing she had reached a dream was beyond comparison. It certainly seemed like the sky was the limit.
A Traumatic Turn
Things completely changed for Van Dyken-Rouen in June, 2014 when she was in a severe ATV accident that severed her spinal cord, leaving her paralyzed. Although her life would never be the same, Van Dyken-Rouen never gave up on the fact that she would one day be able to walk again and a cure for spinal cord injuries would be found. So she gathered her strength and began a grueling physical therapy regimen to help her regain sensation and movement in her legs.
“I want to break all the rules. I want to give people hope that if you continue to work great things can happen,” she says.
With each day, it seems like she is getting one step closer to that goal, recently trading in the exoskeleton for a pair of braces that allow her to walk using her own power.
“The first 50 steps I took, I cried so much, I was sweating so much and cussing at everyone, but I did it, and that was the biggest accomplishment, just taking those first steps.”
Every New Day
That was just the beginning. Van-Dyken Rouen started her own foundation, Amy’s Army, which raises funds to help people with various spinal cord injuries get the necessary medical equipment they either can’t afford or insurance doesn’t cover. She has recently taken on Arizona’s continuing drought and dropping water reservoir issues by storm too, speaking at news conferences to promote the use of rooftop solar power. Van-Dyken Rouen is also a tremendous motivational speaker, sharing her story of loss, struggle and hope with the entire nation.
Her advice for anyone struggling to overcome an obstacle:
“If you have a goal, make sure you continue working at it. There are going to be days where you will take ginormous steps forward and you’ll reach that goal, and that’s great, but there will also be days when you take steps backwards, and that’s when you learn the most about yourself.”
That is the spirit of a true champion.