Six-time Olympic champion swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen has felt sporadic movement a little bit below her belly button since being paralyzed in a June 6 ATV accident, giving her hope that she may regain some feeling in her legs one day.
Van Dyken-Rouen’s goal is to walk out of her Colorado hospital in August, she told TODAY’s Matt Lauer at the facility last Thursday.
“I am now paralyzed,” she told TODAY. “I am now disabled. I am now paraplegic. Although I aim to not be one day, that’s what I am.”
Van Dyken-Rouen, 41, severed her spine in the ATV accident in Arizona. Her neurosurgeon told the retired swimmer and her husband, former Denver Broncos punter Tom Rouen, to say goodbye to each other before surgery in case she didn’t survive it.
“Right now, I suck at getting out of my chair, just like I sucked at swimming [growing up],” Van Dyken-Rouen said. “This is a new challenge. I’m taking it head on. I’m not afraid of it. I welcome it. This is more than just for a gold medal. This is for my life.”
She’s undergoing intense physical therapy, from about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, and posting updates on social media. She said she wouldn’t have use of her hands if her accident was a few vertebrae higher.
“It’s a setback, that’s all it is,” Van Dyken-Rouen said. “And then we’re going to rock and roll.”
Of the accident, Van Dyken-Rouen said she remembers eating trout earlier that day.
“I remember getting up from my seat,” she said, “And that’s where it ends.”
Van Dyken-Rouen said her husband has gone days without sleeping and eating.
“I went over it 1,000 times in my head,” Tom said of the accident. “She took off, and then I turned. One second, and she was over. It’s a tough thing to get out of your mind. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t breathing.
“One of the things that I told her was if she wanted, if all this was too much and she wanted to go, she could go. I would understand.”
Van Dyken-Rouen took that as a challenge, a reminder of her swimming career. She won four gold medals at the 1996 Olympics and two more in 2000.
Her parents, who witnessed those Olympic races firsthand, were in the recovery room when she woke up from surgery and have been with her every day in rehab, according to TODAY.
“Dad, now I can race you in our wheelchairs,” Van Dyken-Rouen joked.