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.

Brooke Bennett

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 3.01.08 AMBrooke Bennett is perhaps the most decorated athlete to ever grace the Quaz. Yeah, we’ve had Shawn Green here. Ellis Valentine and Bev Oden and Doug Glanville, too. But Bennett, well, she’s got gold. Lots and lots of gold. She made her Olympic swimming debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games, beating the the legendary Janet Evans to win the 800 meter freestyle. Four years later she topped that, taking both the 400 meter freestyle and the 800 meter freestyle (in Olympic-record time).

What always fascinates me about Olympians, though, is what happens after the experience ends and they’re forced to move forward. How do they cope? How does it work out? Are the haunted by what was, but can never be again?

Enter, the awesome, engaging Booke Bennett—new Open Water swimmer and TV host (who one can follow on Twitter here).

Enter, The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Brooke, so I’m always fascinated by the plight of the Olympic athlete, because it seems so damn … fleeting. You bust your ass and bust your ass and bust your ass, then—quick as a blink—it’s over. Am I off on this? Because it strikes me as sort of dispiriting. Are there not moments when you think/thought to yourself, “That just wasn’t worth it?”

BROOKE BENNETT: Take the lyrics from Soja—”When We Were Younger” …

I never really got why we’re here
Just look at all we build in our lives
And we all disappear
A few of us are born with so much
While most of us just chasing down a dream that we just can’t touch

It makes sense—we do spend our lives chasing dreams … but it is how you make the memories that make it all worthwhile. I’ve got amazing memories and I am chasing more …

J.P.: Here’s what I know—first swim lesson at 3, first team at 5, sweetheart of the 1996 Olympics at age 16, three gold medals total. But how, Brooke, did you really get into swimming? Were you forced into the pool? Was it a natural love?

B.B.: I’ve always been a waterbabi! The summer I was born my grandparents (my mom’s parents) built a pool, and I never wanted to get out. Because of my love for it and my diagnoses of ADD/ADHD, my mom knew that swimming was the way to go. She never put me on medications, instead she allowed me to do what I loved. It worked!

By the time I was 8 or 9, the dream was mine, and my parents allowed me to pursue my dream. I was never forced to swim—only positively pushed to reach my dreams.

J.P.: In 2000 you were on a Wheaties box. I’ve never asked anyone this, but I’m riveted. Wheaties box is equated as a great honor, a great achievement, etc … etc—and I’m NOT trying to take away from that. But, come day’s end, aren’t you merely being used by General Mills on the cheap and under the guise of “honor” to peddle a pretty crappy tasting cereal?

B.B.: And Popeye ate spinach …

I love spinach! Good or bad—it’s all a matter of your taste buds’ opinion. But growing up, you know If you’re one of the lucky ones to grace the cover of the Wheaties box, then maybe the word “legendary” can go with your name as being one of the best in sports …

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 2.53.15 AMJ.P.: Can anyone be a great swimmer? What I mean is, were you born with a gift that matched the water, or if say, my relatively uncoordinated 10-year-old daughter devotes her entire life to the pool, can she be great, too? Is it more a matter of hard work or talent?

B.B.: You can be great at anything you put your mind too. Plus your heart! But what follows is sacrifice—often being missed. Ask those that excel above and beyond, you have to be willing to pass up on things and look at the bigger picture. In other words, sacrifice=reward.

As for talent, I’ve never been considered the one with the most. But I’ve heard my name mentioned often in the sentence of being the hardest worker.

J.P.: You’ve won three gold medals. Literally, what is running through your mind when you’re standing on the podium? Is that the great moment—standing there, the anthem playing? Does it come later, in hindsight? Does it come before, when you’re in the pool? In other words, when is the high the highest? What’s the peak, peak, peak moment?

B.B.: I guess I felt that times three—1996 I was numb, I couldn’t grasp it all; I was more absorbed in the thought of my grandfather and his overall happiness (he passed April 27, 1996). Everything about my swimming career is because of him.

In 2000 the moment of touching the wall was the highest of highs. My emotions took over. I was in a complete state of shock of my accomplishments—the 400 was never my best event, the 800 not only was a repeat but I also went under the 8:20 mark, breaking the Olympic record that stood for eight years.

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 2.54.05 AMJ.P.: You attempted two comebacks, in 2004 and 2008. I’ve covered many comebacks, and behind the “I just love the competition” banter always seems to be a certain heartbreaking reality that one doesn’t know how to adjust to post-sports life. Am I off on this? And, once you officially retired, how did you accept that it was over?

B.B.: Wrong! I am currently only now on a “comeback.”

After the 2000 Olympic games I underwent double shoulder surgery in November 2001. I rehabbed and worked my way back to a third place finish in the 800 free at the  U.S. Olympic Trials. I was never completely away from the sport; I competed on and off until I retired in January 2008.

The only reason I am back is to do things I’ve yet to do. Open water began to surface in early 2000s, to be then introduced into the Olympics in 2008. So along with wanting to tackle the 10k, I am also venturing into marathon swims (I completed my first one on April 20, 2013—the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim).

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 3.01.47 AMJ.P.: Can you swim for fun? Like, can you head over to the YMCA, jump in the pool and just flop around. Or, in your mind, are you thinking, “I can smoke all you fools”?

B.B.: I am a Florida girl, so beaches and water activities surround me. Just the other day I was on the boat checking crab traps, fishing and enjoying a lunch and swim on an island with my boyfriend.

J.P.: You now work as a sportscaster with the Bright House Sports Network. I’ve seen many ex-athletes who find TV work more fulfilling than playing the sport (Jamal Mashburn has repeatedly said he likes being on TV more than he liked being on the court) and others who find it terribly frustrating talking, but not doing. Where are you on the spectrum, and what have been the challenges, adjusting to TV?

B.B.: The demands and the goals in swimming and TV compare a lot and at first I had to go through some growing pains to learn the ropes. But through the blood, sweat and tears I began to find my way.

The biz is competitive and there will always be people behind that want to rise above you, so I set my sights high and continue to build off what makes me unique. I use the experience of being on both sides of the camera to conduct my interviews and tell stories in a way that I would want something told about me.

Currently I find myself in the mix of both worlds, which creates a whole new set of challenges. I want to continue building my resume in the sports broadcasting world, while also steering the ship toward an Olympic comeback. There is no answer on how to do it … all I can do is continue to work on balancing so that both bosses are satisfied. Sometimes it is smooth, while other times I near breakdown status.

J.P.: How big of a problem are PEDs in swimming? Did you ever use performance enhancers and, if not, were you ever tempted? Irregardless, can you understand how the athlete who cheats still gets fulfillment from a tainted win? That’s one thing that’s always baffled me—you know you cheated, so is it even an accomplishment?

B.B.: This is something I have zero interest in. I can’t control what others do. I only have to remain focused on my goals, train hard and give my body the proper and fair things it needs. The job of keeping the sport clean falls in the hands of the USOC and FINA. They can handle those who choose to cheat.

J.P.: How do you explain the love of swimming? Like, most humans get in a pool, are happy for 20 minutes, then wanna get the hell out.

B.B.: As my grandfather said before I could crawl, “She is a waterbabi!” You couldn’t get me out of the pool as a kid and I’ve never lost it. It has changed over the years, on what draws me to that ‘love.’ As a kid I used it to burn extra energy and as an adult, it is my time to get away from the world around me and just enjoy something that I have a passion for.

But Open Water is what re-sparked that love again with new goals. There is no comparison on what I have already accomplished, each Open Water race I learn something new and we take that into the next challenge.


• Grossest thing you’ve ever seen floating in a swimming pool?: Dead bird, the turd was on the bottom (outdoor training in Florida)

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Rick Carey, Joey Votto, Del Taco, business meetings, cutting your toenails, eggplant, Los Angeles, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Henry Winkler, John Updike, lollipops, Hall & Oates: Lollipops, Henry Winkler, Joey Votto, Rick Carey, John Updike, Hall and Oates, cutting my toenails, Del Taco, LA, business meetings, eggplant, Real Housewives of ATL

• I’m a mediocre swimmer. If we race two laps, and you give me a one lap lead, do I have a shot?: You’d win! 1-that is a big lead 2-I am a horrible sprinter (being challenged by non-swimmers to a race has got to be one of the most annoying things ever!!) Now if you want to swim for an hour straight and see how far you go compared me, that is my wheelhouse!

• Do you find pool fart bubbles more funny or gross?: When you swim with gassy swimmers … lol

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Knock on wood I’ve had extreme flying scares … I just hope answering this doesn’t change my luck!

“What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” seems like an awful career move. Thoughts?: It is a career move he chose to do … I am good friends with Ryan and support his choice and would never judge him for it. For what he hopes to achieve outside of the sport—may the doors open in the fashion industry but not distract him from making a fourth Olympic Games

• Better bodies—swimmers or gymnasts? Why?: No competition there—swimmers, hands down! I like height and long-lean muscle mass.

• Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?: Two come to mind. “Never back down from something you really want” — Grandpa James Lane

“Developing tough skin is easier said than done, but you’re going to always need it because you’re a go-getter and want to do things most people can’t even fathom” — Donna “step mom” Schomer

• Five favorite breakfast cereals?: Cheerios, Granola, Frosted Mini Wheats, Grape Nuts and Lucky Charms.

• If you could ask Steve Balboni one question, what would it be?: Are you a superstitious player, due to the fact you were given the claim to “The Curse of the Balboni” that no team would win a World Series that had more home runs than you did from 1985? (The Curse was broken in 2001).