John Lewis intended only to say hello to Amy Van Dyken and get his picture taken with the six-time Olympic swimming gold medalist when he saw her at the UCLA-USC women’s swim meet last week.
A former competitive swimmer and the father of swimmers, Lewis had followed Van Dyken’s career from afar — especially her 1996 and 2000 Olympic triumphs — and rooted for her as a fellow Coloradan.
But when he approached Van Dyken, who is paralyzed from the waist down since she severed her spinal cord in a near-fatal ATV accident last June, his poise crumbled. “It was so emotional,” he said. “I started crying and said, ‘I’m so sorry.’”
Van Dyken, preparing for her role as a commentator on the Pac-12 Networks’ telecast of the meet, comforted him and told him not to be sorry. “I was crying like crazy and she was smiling at me,” Lewis said.
Van Dyken has learned to handle such occasions gracefully.
“I understand that people are sorry that the accident happened. I’m sorry that it happened, too, but it’s an accident. Accidents happen,” she said. “And the things I’ve gotten to do since I’ve been sitting have been pretty cool. I’ve met some really fun people. I’m back at work, I’m back doing what I love, so don’t feel sorry for me.”
Van Dyken, who was perpetually in motion and hated to sit, now spends most of her day sitting in a wheelchair. Maneuvering the chair has raised calluses on hands that used to be so soft her friends would joke she had never done a dish in her life.
Her home in Scottsdale, Ariz., was modified to add wider doorways and a roll-in shower and remove the carpets, but navigating the rest of the world can be tricky. Air travel requires careful planning. Even something small, like rolling her chair up and over the raised plastic cover protecting the TV cables at USC’s swim stadium, takes noticeable effort.
Van Dyken, who turned 42 last week, faces every challenge you can imagine — and some you can’t — with the same zest she displayed as a swimmer and, later, radio talk show personality and fitness fanatic. She’s tireless at rehab sessions, which include “Walking Wednesdays,” when she walks a treadmill while strapped into a standing frame as therapists manipulate her legs.
“The idea behind that is you’re hoping a new connection will be made down the spinal cord, and the brain will figure out a new path to make her able to walk,” said her husband, former Denver Broncos punter Tom Rouen, who put his real estate ventures on hold to care for her. “She’s able to support more and more weight. It’s just a really long process.
“She’s never been very patient, but little things are big triumphs now. Last week, lying down, she was able to kick her right leg out straight, 10 times, which means she’s starting to get some quad function. She can’t feel it but she can do it. We’re hoping that with every new thing that happens eventually the feeling will start to come back.”
Even while sitting, Van Dyken is rarely idle. She started a foundation — its followers call themselves Amy’s Army — with the aim of providing resources for information and equipment to spinal-cord injury patients who can’t afford it. She also keeps a close eye on the work of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which has a goal to cure spinal cord injuries.
Her return to TV was a significant step. Van Dyken is scheduled to appear on the Pac-12 Networks’ telecast of the Pac-12 Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships Feb. 25-28 in Federal Way, Wash.
“As soon as she gets in there, gets behind the mike and puts the headphones on, I think she feels really normal,” Rouen said. “And that’s a good thing because that’s one of the hardest parts of this whole thing, having some sense of normalcy to your life.”
She has a new normal but is still fearless. She’s as attention-grabbing as her wheelchair, customized at her request to be “the purpliest and skulliest” possible.
“Sometimes things are hard. Sometimes, just putting my pants on in the morning is the biggest struggle that I’ll have all day,” she said. “It sounds weird but if you think about it, if you’re sitting in a chair you don’t have the use of anything from your waist down, so how do you put your pants on?
“I definitely have moments, but I look at those moments and I learn from those moments and I move on. I don’t want to have an entire day taken up with being sad or upset. Because what if it is my last day? I don’t want my last day on Earth to be sad and sourpuss.”
The day of her accident, June 6, 2014, nearly was her last. Van Dyken was thrown off her ATV and down an embankment as her husband watched in horror from about 20 feet away. She was face-down and not breathing when he reached her.
“I just lifted up on the back of her neck and opened her airway and thank God she started to gasp and then she started to convulse,” Rouen said. “It’s great that she started breathing because the way the injury was, if I had done any chest compressions it would have killed her instantly because her vertebra was right up against her aorta. It’s amazing she’s here. It really is.”
It took time to assemble a team of doctors to operate on her spine and they gave her no guarantees she’d make it through surgery. She believes her athleticism saved her.
“When that ATV bounced on my back I was so muscular that it didn’t mush me,” she said. “My vertebra was a nanometer from my aorta. I really feel that if I didn’t have that muscle layer it would have gone straight through and I wouldn’t be here.”
Her progress since then has been remarkable, if too slow for her. “It used to be progress meant breaking world records and American records. Right now, it’s progress in the fact that, oh my God, I moved my quad,” she said. “I’ll take it.”
Swim fan Lewis no longer felt sorry for her after they spoke for a few minutes.
“She’s just such an upbeat person, a strong person,” he said. “And she is somebody who has taken something that was disastrous and made it into a situation of strength and now she’s doing what she likes doing. I’m so happy for her.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen