Earlier this month, an all-terrain vehicle accident severed Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen's spinal cord, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. And just three weeks later, the six-time gold medalist and Olympic Hall of Famer is already in high spirits, telling the Today show's Matt Lauer that her injury is a mere "setback." Amy's already faced difficult odds in her life, overcoming asthma to win four gold medals at one Olympic Games, Amy's been an inspiration all her life — but never more so than now, when she's facing her toughest challenge yet.
On the evening of June 6, after a date night dinner with her husband, former Denver Broncos punter Tom Rouen, Amy was thrown off of her ATV when she accidentally hit a curb. The vehicle rolled down an embankment and on top of her, severing her spine at the T11 vertebra. Amy was airlifted to nearby Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn Medical Center for emergency surgery. According to Today, her injuries were so severe that she and her husband said their goodbyes before she was transported to the hospital.
After more than a week in intensive care, Amy has started rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., where she spends seven hours a day trying to regain strength in her lower body. To her pleasant surprise, she has been able to return to the pool as part of her physical therapy.
Since her surgery, she has felt some sensation below her belly button, which has given her hope that she'll recover the use of her legs one day. When Lauer asked what her goal is now, Amy answered without hesitation, "My ultimate goal is, in August, to walk out of here."
We have a feeling that, with her steely determination and undying optimism, Amy would be setting the same goal either way. Take a look at all the ways she's been an inspiration through her trying times.
Accept First, Then Conquer
While a life-changing injury like the one Amy suffered would devastate most people, Amy is accepting her new life like a champ, even "welcoming" the challenge.
"I am now paralyzed. I am now disabled," Amy told Lauer matter-of-factly. "Although I aim to not be one day, that's what I am."
Although she accepts the situation, Amy sees this as a temporary bump in the road, telling Lauer, "It's a setback; that's all it is. And then we're gonna rock and roll."
Amy's mom, Becky, told Lauer that she wasn't always the best swimmer, but it was her fierce determination that led her to becoming an Olympic gold medalist. And now, she's applying that same tenacity to overcoming her paralysis. "This is a new challenge and I'm taking it head on. I'm not afraid of it. I welcome it," she said in the interview. "And this is more than just for a gold medal — this is for my life."
Becoming Closer Through Tragedy
The night of her accident, Amy's husband, Tom, wasn't sure if he'd ever see her again. The prospect of losing Amy has brought the couple closer than ever, and in fact, Amy says that the hardest part of this whole ordeal has been watching her husband suffer.
"The reason it's hard is not because I got hurt, it's because of what he had to see, what he had to do," Amy explained to Lauer. "And for five days, he didn't sleep. He didn't eat. He doesn't like to see me like this, but I don't like to see him like that."
And as for Tom, he had to say some of the most difficult words for any husband to say: "One of the things that I told her was if ... all this was too much and she wanted to go, she could go, and I'd understand."
But upon hearing those words, Amy told Lauer, she was only more determined to fight for her life.
Finding a Reason to Smile
Despite everything, Amy still sees the positives in the situation: "I'm so lucky," she told Today. "If it would have been up a few vertebrae, I wouldn't have the use of my hands." And throughout the last few weeks, which have undoubtedly been the toughest of her life, Amy has consistently kept a smile on her face.
From her Instagram account, it's clear that she's been keeping a positive attitude as she posts pictures of physical therapy, touching get-well gifts, and her loving dog, Kuma.
Perhaps the best cure for her right now is her ability to laugh. Amy's father, Don, recalls that after Amy woke up from surgery and saw her parents in the recovery room, she looked at him and said, "Dad, now I can race you in our wheelchairs."
You go, Amy.