Amy Van Dyken

Written by Niki D’Andrea Category: Spotlight Issue: April 2015
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Amy Van Dyken Olympic Swimmer & Survivor

Scottsdale resident Amy Van Dyken won four gold medals in swimming at the 1996 Olympics, including a nail-biting victory by a hundredth of a second in the 100m butterfly stroke.

She earned two more golds at the 2000 Olympics, which makes her Arizona’s all-time winningest Olympian, but since an ATV accident in Show Low last June, she’s been nationally known for something else: championing causes for people with spinal cord injuries through her nonprofit Amy Van Dyken Foundation, and serving as an ambassador for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Van Dyken’s accident severed her spinal cord at the T11 vertebra, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. We recently caught up to talk about her injury, the sensations of paralysis and her new goal in life: “I will walk again,” Van Dyken says. “Absolutely. I’m working on it every single day.”

What were your thoughts when you first saw the X-ray of your spinal cord injury?
My [surgeon] said, “I need to show you this. You see this bone?... Do you see what it’s touching?” And I said no, and he said, “That’s your aorta.” He said, “I’m working in nanometers, so I need you to say goodbye to your husband. I’m not sure you’re going to make it out of this.”

You were told you might die.
The doctor actually thought I wasn’t going to make it through the 72-hour period [after the surgery], either. So he’s shocked that I’m here. It’s all good. I am here, and I drive him nuts daily... I was walking in the exoskeleton the other day in physical therapy, and they were like, “Well, you’re kind of crooked,” and I said, “That’s because the doctor put me together wrong!” (laughs)

How did it feel when you took those first steps in the exoskeleton [robotic leg braces]?
It’s interesting how you forget to walk, how hard it is, because one of the exoskeletons that I’m in right now, I have to actually weight-shift and then use the hip flexor muscle that I have to kick my leg forward. Well, it’s amazing how much thought it takes to actually do that, and I can’t talk to people while I’m doing it. I’ve got to concentrate. So it’s very cool, but it also lets you know that you take a lot of things for granted.

Describe what you feel from the waist down.
A lot of people think you just feel nothing, that it just feels dead. It’s actually quite the opposite... around my waist, kind of where your hip bones are, and all the way around, I literally have had the feeling like I’m being awoken in the middle of a surgery, like the skin ripping. Right now, it’s still very painful. It’s very tender to the touch, even though I can’t feel it, which is really weird. And my legs right now feel like I’m standing in a fire. Different people get different sensations. Some people get the opposite; they feel like it’s cold all the time. I will get that, every once in a while. After I take the medicine for it, my feet will feel really cold.

Talk about the Amy’s Army event on April 11.
It’s right after Bike Week, so we’re calling it the ‘Amy’s Army After Party.’ A lot of people, after Bike Week, say ‘I wish we had another ride.’ Well now we do. It’s going to start at Spooky Fast [Custom Finishing], which is connected to Scottsdale Harley Davidson. We’re gonna go up the Beeline Highway, go through Fountain Hills, Cave Creek, and then end back at Scottsdale Harley... we’re gonna have cupcakes and sandwiches and food and beer and music, and it’s just gonna be a big, huge party.  [People] can sign up on the website (amyvandyken.org).

You came back to win two gold medals after a serious shoulder injury that required multiple surgeries. What pushed you to do that?
Because they told me that both of those surgeries would end my career. So I wanted to show them that it wouldn’t end my career. I’ve always been one of those people that, if you tell me no, I’m going to show you I can do it no matter what. Right now, the doctors are saying that I will never walk again. Well, we’ll see about that.
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