Amy Van Dyken

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Were this Quaz being published before June 6, 2014, it’d be awfully interesting. Amy Van Dyken, after all, is a six-time Olympic gold medalist and, without debate, one of the greatest swimmers in the history of the sport. She could talk to us about competing, about winning, about standing atop a podium with beautiful bling dangling from her neck. She could talk about marrying an NFL punter, about traveling the world.

Again, it would be dandy.

On June 6, 2014, however, Van Dyken’s life changed forever. While riding an ATV in Scottsdale, Arizona, she launched over a curb, fell from the vehicle and severed her spinal cord at the T11 vertebrae. She was found lying on the ground next and was airlifted to Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center. Van Dyken has been in a wheelchair ever since.

For a moment, digest the previous paragraph and be sad. Think about how awful it is; how walking is this beautiful thing; how … no. Actually, no. Stop.

Because she is, well, Amy Van Dyken, the 237th Quaz refuses to feel sorry for herself. She now travels the country as a speaker, and heads the Amy Van Dyken Foundation, which raises funding and awareness for people with spinal cord injuries.

Amy lives in Colorado, was bummed about her senior prom date and has important questions for Nicole Richie. One can follow Amy on Twitter here.

Amy Van Dyken, you’re a hero. And, now, a Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Amy, first, I’m thrilled to have you do a Quaz. Beyond thrilled. And I want to start with what might be an untraditional question. So, as an athlete you’re trained and wired to believe, “I can do this! No time is impossible, no distance is impossible. I. Can. Do. This.” And you’ve clearly taken this approach to your physical recovery. So I wonder—do you truly believe you will walk again? Not merely take steps, but walk as you once did? Or are there limits to what you shoot for? Like, does science and human anatomy create any restrictions that belief—no matter how strong—can’t overcome?

AMY VAN DYKEN: Right now I’m taking it one step at a time … no pun intended. I really hope to walk as I once did, but I’m realistic. I was told my spine was 100 percent severed, and looking at my X-ray it looked like that was totally true. With that, I have to understand that any progress I make is proving my doctor wrong. I am in braces, and walking under my own power (50 steps take almost 30 minutes; lots of sweat and lots of swearing at my therapist and husband) so that right there is a miracle.

J.P.: I have a very good friend who has MS, and he’s one of the best people I’ve ever met; almost a guru. I mean that—there’s something extra special about him. And I often wonder if, in a way, having the perspective of an awful illness is what took him from really cool guy to Gandhi-esque. Here you are—severed spine, clearly special. So how has the accident changed you? And do you know what I mean? Like, does personal tragedy change who you are?

A.V.D.: I look at the world way differently than I did before. I used to be very jaded, and thought people were jerks. Now, I wonder what is going on in the lives of people who are grumpy. I also used to be the type who would always keep my feelings close to the vest. Now, if a feeling comes up … I tell people about it. Not feelings along the lines of, “My tummy hurts, must have been the chicken.” But, well, I always tell my friends and family I love them all the time. You never know if you won’t have the chance again, so I make sure they know how meaningful they are to me. So if I leave the earth again, they know how I felt.

Also, I wouldn’t say the accident changed who I am. It just changed how vocal I am about things. I was always this way before, but now I leave nothing undone or unsaid. I’m also a bit more spiritual. Not quite sure why that is.

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J.P.: After your accident the doctor told you, “There’s more of a chance that you’re not going to make it out than you will. You need to say goodbye to your husband.” I mean—crap. Where were you, exactly, when he/she said this? How did you process the information? You’re a young woman being told your life may well end. Ugh.

A.V.D.: It was the morning after my accident. I was being wheeled into surgery, which was an emergency but they had to assemble a team. It was very soap opera-esque, what with the going into surgery and saying your goodbyes. When the doctor told me I might go, I had that feeling from the moment I could remember. I was in flight for life, and looked out the window. I knew I was in the air, flying. I yelled, “Am I dead? Please don’t let me die!” So, this wasn’t new information for me. It was very businesslike in the sense that I knew I had to say this to Tom in case I didn’t make it. I wanted him to know I was OK with him dating and/or getting married again. I didn’t want him wondering. I think at the time I was OK with moving on. I didn’t want to die, but I had come to the realization that my life was probably over, and I was OK with it. This may be why now I live life to its fullest. I was given a second chance, and I don’t want to waste a second of it.

J.P.: Lighter subject—you won six Olympic gold medals. The Olympics have always fascinated me, because it’s all this work and focus, focus and work, dedication, restraint, sweat, tears, blood—and then you’re there. And then, a few weeks later, it’s over. Done. Amy, is it worth it? Like, you win a gold, then you go home. Does the glow last? A week? A month? Forever? Are the times when you think, “hmm, I coulda been drinking beers and watching movies?”

A.V.D.: We did drink a lot of beer, and watch a lot of movies while training. I think it’s 100 percent worth it—but I did really well. Ask someone who trained their whole life, gave up so much, and didn’t do what they wanted. I think their answer may be totally different. For me I never really had a ‘glow.’ I went there to do a job, I did that job. When I get in certain moments, I will get emotional, or really proud about it. It was something I did, it doesn’t define me as a person. It didn’t change me. I’m the same, but with a lot more bling.

J.P.: With as much detail as you can muster, what does it feel like to win a gold medal? Like, what does it REALLY feel like? The moment? The buzz?

A.V.D.: It is so hard to explain because there isn’t one thing you can compare it to. It is so crazy, and surreal to hear, “The gold medal goes to Amy Van Dyken, from the United States of America”—and it’s not a dream. To this day, when I hear the National Anthem I get choked up. When I watch a race on YouTube, I get goosebumps. I was able to represent my country, and do it to the best of my ability, and walk away with something that we regard as the highest achievement in sports. To do something like that, something that not just your mom and dad are proud of, but your whole country is proud of, is really amazing. If I could bottle that feeling up and sell it, I would have more money than George Foreman with his grill. Which, by the way, I have three of.

J.P.: You seem ridiculously positive. How? Where does that come from? And do you ever have horrible days because of the injury? Moments of, “Crap, why me?”

A.V.D.: I’ve always been really positive, so this is just really me you are seeing. Most of the world only saw me compete, so you would not have seen me happy and positive behind the blocks. That would have been weird. I have bad moments all the time. I say “moments” and not days, because I don’t want to waste this time I’ve been given on being pissy for a whole day. Sometimes it’s really ugly, but I have never said “Why me?” I feel that this happened to me for a reason. I’m also not the only person this has ever happened to, and for a lot of people it’s way worse than how I have it. I look at it like, there are worse things in the world than to have a really cool looking wheelchair, and be stuck in it zipping all over the place. Don’t get me started on how awesome I am going downhill …

J.P.: We all have bad moments. You had one in 2000, when you spat in the lane of Inge de Bruijin at the 2000 Games, then said you could have won, “if I were a man.” That was 15 years ago. I wonder, looking back, if that was a worthwhile statement about something you believed in, the act of an immature kid, both, neither? And did you ever say anything to her afterward? Or in the years later?

A.V.D.: let me start by saying I had been spitting in lanes since high school. It was my good luck “thing.” When I did it in ’96 everyone laughed. I had even done an interview with a reporter for a major network about it a week earlier, and now that same person lambasted me on the air for it. He and I were laughing about it, and now he thought I was the spawn of the devil. That was odd to me. Oh, well … moving on.

That statement was something I believed in, but it was very immature. If I had been a little more mature, that wouldn’t have come out of my mouth. I should have been happy for everyone else, but it was a lot of stuff boiling to the surface. Getting back to the Games wasn’t easy. I had two shoulder surgeries, and I wasn’t the young innocent kid I had been in ’96. Not that it’s an excuse—I shouldn’t have said it. I am very sorry to Inge for saying it. That is the first time I’ve ever said anything publicly or privately to her about it. Wow! There you go, breaking news. 😉

The ol' pool spit.
The ol’ pool spit.

J.P.: You’re married to Tom Rouen, the longtime Denver Broncos punter. That’s both random and super cool. So, how’d that happen? How’d you meet? How long did you date? Proposal?

A.V.D.: Totally random, but we were both Colorado kids so it was bound to happen, right? We met after a pre-season game, at the Denver Chop House. It wasn’t love at first sight. As Tom says, it was two bulls about to lock horns. Neither of us had a great attitude at our first meeting. Then he came back after dinner and we chatted for a long time. We discovered that we lived across the street from each other. It was a very busy street, but still, a street. He proposed on the one-year anniversary of our first date. We were engaged for about 2 1/2 years. We have been married 14 years! Crazy to think it’s been that long.

J.P.: Do you feel like people treat you differently now that you’re in a wheelchair? Have you lost friends? Gained friends? Is there an awkwardness for some? Do you have to approach people differently?

A.V.D.: I am overlooked by people now. When I was 6-feet tall, that never happened. I am sometimes treated like I can’t do things by myself, that I need help to do everything. It’s getting better, but it’s the one thing that makes me crazy because I’m so independent. I haven’t lost any friends, but in some cases we don’t see each other as often. That’s not necessarily because of the chair. I have gained some more friends, which is amazing. There is an awkwardness for some—mostly for those friends who were teammates of mine or Tom’s. It’s hard for athletes to see one of their own after an accident like this. I’m not sure why, but I felt it when I was able-bodied and it happened to a friend of mine. It’s hard for them to imagine being so physical, and then having that taken away. I totally understand it. I do approach those people very carefully, and then I try to make jokes so they know it’s still me. I’m just sitting.

J.P.: I’m obsessed by death, and you said—immediately after the accident—you were in a tunnel. It was green. It was light green, dark green, it was purple. It was orange. It was beautiful. It was warm. I felt so comfortable, I didn’t see anyone there. I wanted to see my grandpa. I wanted to see my dog. But I got sent back so I don’t know what that means. U-turn.” Amy, I’m an agnostic Jew who doesn’t really buy an afterlife. But I’m openminded. Are you convinced that’s what you saw? Possible? Or was it perhaps just some weird post-traumatic stuff going on with your cranial lobe?

A.V.D.: I know some people say it’s your synapses in your brain trying to fire. I grew up in a religious home, I went to a Christian school until third grade. I understood how some would think there was a scientific reason for seeing what I did.

Now, there is no doubt that it isn’t science. Science could answer what I saw, but not what I felt. In a time when I should feel nothing but pain and heartache, I felt happy and comforted. Not sure how science can answer that. I really felt that I was going somewhere good, happy and safe. I wasn’t scared, or hurt, or sad … everything I felt was the complete opposite. How I have come back also makes me feel it was something else. I feel I have a reason for being here. I feel a sense of peace about things that I didn’t before. I know I’m not going to convince everyone of what I experienced. I don’t really care what people think about it … which, if you knew me before, would not come out of my mouth. I was always worried I said the wrong thing, I didn’t want to offend everyone. Now, I know I can only make me happy, and if I don’t say the right thing, oh well. I’ll try harder next time.

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• Five greatest female swimmers of your lifetime?: Janet Evans, Nancy Hogshead, Mary T. Magher, Lee Ann Fetter, and … really, only one more? Shirley Babashoff.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Shasta, Dara Torres, Warren Moon, Wiz Khalifa, “Love Boat,” Thanksgiving turkey, Paul Simon, steamed broccoli, Lucille Ball, Bobby Brown, curling, Sarajevo: My ADD won’t let me look at this list long enough. OK, let me try: Love Boat, Lucille Ball, Warren Moon, Dara, Shasta, broccoli, turkey, Paul Simon, Wiz, Sarajevo, Bobby, curling.

• Worst swimming-related moment of your life?: The boys knew I’m not a morning person, so they convinced me the black line smelled like licorice. Long story short, I went down, took a whiff, and thought my head was exploding. Yup, I sniffed pool water …

• I’m itching for the Kid n Play reunion tour. Any idea when it’ll happen?: Looking at the hair style of Colorado State wide receiver Rashard Higgins, it’s coming sooner than we are really ready for

• One question you would ask Nicole Richie were she here right now?: How did you and Paris Hilton become friends, and do you regret it?

• Best Halloween costume of your lifetime?: It wasn’t mine, but my dog’s. He was the horse for the headless horseman. It was awesome.

• Grossest thing you’ve ever seen in a pool?: I’ve seen it all—poop, pee, barf, blood and even a finger.

• Should Bill May have been allowed to participate in Olympic synchronized swimming? Why or why not?: Yes, it wasn’t stipulated that it is specifically a male or female sport. Therefore, let the man swim dance!

• You mentored a contestant on ABC’s “Extreme Weight Loss.” What was the experience like?: It was really fun, and I was so happy to have met Jackie. She is an amazing woman, and just took it on full force. I really love her spirit. Also, Chris Powell is an amazing person and I’m happy to have met him. He is 100 percebt real on the show, and is really as amazing as you think and hope he would be.

• What can you tell me about your senior prom?: I broke my toe that morning. Went with a guy who was a bump on a log, so that wasn’t fun. Went with my group of friends. Two of us had moms with the same grocery getter (station wagon) so, we drove those instead of limos. I was really tired because I had swim practice that morning, but still went to after-prom. Was with the same bump on a log, so that was a bust as well. I had fun, but should have just gone with my girlfriends.