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Six-time Olympic gold medal swimmer providing wheelchairs for kids after spine injury

Amy’s Army — part of the Amy Van Dyken Foundation — is helping improve the realities of youth with spinal cord injuries by working with caregivers to provide wheelchairs that fit. (Courtesy: @amyvandyken/Twitter)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (BVM) – Amy Van Dyken-Rouen has the elite distinction of being one of the few Olympians whose medals are all gold. After turning to swimming to offset severe childhood asthma, Van Dyken-Rouen went on to win four gold medals in Atlanta in 1996 and two more in Sydney in 2000.

Despite being named Swimming World’s American Swimmer of the Year in back-to-back years (1995, 1996), perhaps Van Dyken-Rouen’s crowning achievement didn’t take place in a pool, but in response to tragedy.

Eighteen years after Van Dyken-Rouen became the first American female to win four gold medals in a single Olympics, she tumbled down an embankment in Show Low, Ariz. on an ATV. Although Van Dyken-Rouen was conscious following the crash, she was without feeling in her legs.

The six-time Olympic gold medalist had severed her spinal cord at the T11 vertebra, coming within millimeters of rupturing her aorta.

There was once a time where walking was the least of Van Dyken-Rouen’s worries as she dominated opponents from around the world in swimming’s most competitive atmospheres. Then, suddenly – in the presence of her husband and former Denver Broncos punter, Tom Rouen – Van Dyken-Rouen’s spine crumpled, leaving her wondering if she’d taken her last steps.

Despite being paralyzed from the waist down, Van Dyken-Rouen vowed to walk again. After a long road of recovery and rehabilitation – and with the help of physical therapists and high-technology gear – her promise to not let a 2014 ATV accident be the end of her story came to fruition.

After nearly three months of treatment, rehabilitation and being confined to a wheelchair, Van Dyken-Rouen took her first post-injury steps. With the help of a walker and an exoskeleton brace, the former butterfly and freestyle champion was back on her own two feet.

As Van Dyken-Rouen got moving again and made improvements in both strength and mobility, her competitive spirit was still alive within.

Having been involved with CrossFit — a branded fitness regimen which involves a combination of strength and conditioning consisting mainly of aerobic exercise, calisthenics, and Olympic weightlifting — for years during and after her prolific swimming career, Van Dyken-Rouen would make a return to the activity she loved.

Hour-long CrossFit classes at affiliated gyms typically include a warm-up, a skill development segment, the high-intensity “workout of the day” (WOD) and a period of individual or group stretching.

In her first athletic competition since her injury, Van Dyken-Rouen finished second in the WheelWOD Games in July of 2019 in Ontario, Canada.

WheelWOD Games is the pinnacle event of adaptive fitness for the best athletes in the world, according to USA Swimming. Athletes from all over the world battle for the title of the fittest adaptive athlete in the world which requires making a top-12 cut internationally to earn an invitation.

Representing Phoenix-based CrossFit Blade, Van Dyken-Rouen completed 13 CrossFit workouts for adaptive athletes at the WheelWOD Games. She finished with 1,215 points in the seated impaired women’s division, took first place in two of the workouts and finished second in seven others.

As Van Dyken-Rouen continues to thrive athletically since her injury, she’s also helping make an impact in the lives of children in wheelchairs.

Amy’s Army — part of the Amy Van Dyken Foundation — is helping improve the realities of youth with spinal cord injuries by working with caregivers to provide wheelchairs that fit.

Insurance only allows a new wheelchair every five years and for children, who grow in size and stature rapidly, it creates an issue of fit. Wheelchairs that are too big cause less-than-ideal pushing methods that result in problems with shoulders, arms and wrists, each critical to a paraplegic’s mobility. Wheelchairs that might fit immediately but become small with growth lead to sores and uncomfortability.

Van Dyken-Rouen’s Wheels for Kids donates custom wheelchairs to children aged 18 or younger by working directly with hospitals, therapists, and case workers through community connections.

With a magical swimming career, elite determination in the face of tragedy and the formation of the Scottsdale-based nonprofit, Van Dyken-Rouen was recognized by the state she currently resides in.

Despite having only spent two years at the University of Arizona, Van Dyken-Rouen was inducted to the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019. Van Dyken-Rouen joined former Phoenix Suns star Tom Chambers, former boxing world champion Michael Carbajal and three others.

While her name might not be as recognizable as Chambers and others, Van Dyken-Rouen’s impact may be felt for years to come.

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