Amy Van Dyken, the six-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer who became paralyzed when she severed her spinal cord in an ATV crash this summer, says she is determined to walk again.
“There is a possibility that that milestone of me walking again may happen,” Van Dyken told ABC’s Robin Roberts in an interview for the ABC News special, “The Year: 2014."
“Will I do it under my own power? Probably, because I’m hoping it’s going to be with braces, but will I do it without braces? I don’t know, but just that will be a milestone in and of itself, so let’s do it,” she added.
On June 6, Van Dyken and her husband, former Denver Broncos punter Tom Rouen, were in Arizona when Rouen found his wife lying face down and not breathing after the ATV she was driving hit a curb and sent her flying over an embankment.
“I do remember having dinner with Tom, and I remember standing up and pushing in my chair, and that’s where my memory ends,” Van Dyken said. “I have no idea what happened at all.”
Van Dyken was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where doctors told her she was paralyzed from the waist down and needed emergency surgery. Her injuries were so severe that Van Dyken said the surgeon told her to say her goodbyes to her husband before she went into surgery.
“They tell you that this is it, this is the line, right here, and you go, ‘OK, well, that’s the line. Well, let’s go ahead and be very businesslike about it,’ it was very odd,” Van Dyken said.
“But I looked at Tom and I said, ‘OK, I want you to know that I love you, but I want you to know that if I don’t come out of this, I want you to date again, and feel free to move on.’” she continued. “And he looked at me and said, ‘No, no, no, you’re getting through this, but if it’s ever too much for you, you can let go.’ And I looked at him and I thought, 'Well that’s like a challenge, and so, don’t challenge me, I’m coming out of this sucker.’”
Van Dyken came through the surgery and spent two weeks in recovery. She was later transferred to a rehabilitation center in her hometown of Denver, where she has continued to work to regain her strength.
She believes the reason she survived the accident is because she was very fit and exercised every day.
“I was so thankful that I have use of my arms, because I was always known as a big upper body swimmer,” she said. “I mean, I got out of bed five days after my injury, which is, I guess, they said not really heard of, but it was great.”
To this day, Van Dyken continues to work hard to keep up with her exercises and make her muscles stronger, which she said has helped her heal tremendously.
“When I was injured, I was a complete paraplegic... [then] I was given the diagnosis of being an incomplete paraplegic, which means that I do have feeling and I do have some movement below my injury,” she continued. “That was a huge milestone, and I never thought that I would get it, but here it is.”
The former Olympic athlete said doctors told her she may never regain movement of her legs, but they have been stunned by her recovery.
“My doctor is like, ‘this should not be happening. I mean, when I see your spine in surgery and I see where it’s at, this should not be happening,’” Van Dyken said.
With her seemingly infinite optimism, Van Dyken said her family and friends give her a strong support system. She said she would tell people in her situation to “think about the positive,” focus on what’s possible and not to “go down this rabbit hole” of negative thoughts.
“Listen, no, I don’t have use of my legs, but I do have use of my arms, so I look at it that way: Things could have been way worse,” she said. “Think about the positive, and the light will grow and grow and grow, and you know what? Your life is going to be awesome.”
And to those people who see her in her wheelchair, Van Dyken said not to feel sorry for her, but proud that she has come so far.
“Here’s what I want people to do, when they see me and I’m opening the door for myself, don’t feel sorry that I open the door for myself,” she said. “Look at people who are paralyzed and doing things for themselves as superheroes because in order to get where they are, they had to basically train like an Olympian. I would know.”