On June 6, 2014, six-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Amy Van Dyken and her husband, former Broncos punter Tom Rouen, had finished dinner and were going to take a ride. She decided to take her ATV.
Van Dyken pushed away from the table, and the next thing she remembered was seeing the walls of a hospital room in Scottsdale, Ariz.
She was riding without a helmet when she crashed in Show Low, Ariz., suffering a concussion, four broken ribs and four broken vertebrae. Two vertebrae, T11 and T12, were smashed.
Spinal fusion surgery lasted six hours, and Van Dyken was paralyzed from the waist down.
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Lying in the hospital bed, she could open her eyes for one reason.
“I’m alive because I’m an athlete,” she said. “I’m strong.”
Her inspirational message as a keynote speaker on Thursday found the ideal audience. Van Dyken spoke to about 1,500 at the Sheraton Crown Center during the WIN for KC Women’s Sports Award Celebration.
The event recognizes female individuals and groups for their athletic accomplishments and contributions over the past year and has attracted such speakers as basketball star Tamika Catchings and volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh-Jennings. Often stories focus on overcoming obstacles to become a standout.
Van Dyken had reached the pinnacle of her career. She became the first American woman to win four gold medals in one Olympics in 1996. She battled through two shoulder injuries and added two more golds in 2000 before retiring into a life of broadcasting and charity work.
“My life was pretty much awesome,” she said.
There were hurdles on the way to the Olympic podium. She had childhood asthma, and quit swimming for a while in 1993 to overcome mononucleosis.
Van Dyken responded to each moment with defiance. “Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do?” became her mantra, and the same approach was required after the accident.
Van Dyken, 41, trains in rehabilitation as she did in competition with the hope of walking again. She hasn’t slowed down. Last month, she returned to broadcasting, calling a swimming meet for the Pac-12 Network.
Her charity work focuses on Amy’s Army (amyvandyken.org), raising revenue to improve the lives of people with spinal cord injuries.
“They say that the first year of being paralyzed you can spend up to $1 million dollars in medical expenses alone,” Van Dyken said. “I’m tired of hearing stories about paraplegics and quadriplegics having to go into their back yards and get hosed off for a shower.”
Van Dyken has made the most of her new life.
“I’m happy, happier I think than I was before,” she said. “I have the coolest wheelchair you can find. I still have my husband. I just want you to know that anything that comes your way, asthma … an ATV … figure out a way over it, under it or around it.”
WIN for KC award winners
Award winners honored at Thursday’s WIN for KC Women’s Sports Awards Celebration:
▪ BKD Wow Award: Robin Sterneck, WIN interim director 2013
▪ UMB Senior Sportswoman Award: Caroline Helmkamp, Revolve KC founding member
▪ Hallmark Leadership Award: Tracey Davies, KC Dragons rugby club founder
▪ HCA Midwest Health Systems Sports Girl: Mariah Peters, Blue Springs High School individual and team state golf champion
▪ Sprint Teamwork Award: Louisburg High School girls’ soccer fundraising committee
▪ Lockton Companies Resiliency Award: Mindy Corporon, triathlete and creator of two foundations after the shooting deaths of her father and son at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park.