She spoke bravely to the TV cameras, as she always has, determined to hold her composure as she talked about her latest — and biggest — challenge in life.
Amy Van Dyken has spent more than half of her 42 years conquering every obstacle in her path. Now it's about personal tragedy.
When the news came a few weeks ago of Van Dyken's freak accident June 6 in Arizona, crashing an all-terrain vehicle and severing her spinal cord to leave her paralyzed from the waist down, anyone who knew the American swimming hero from the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics had to share the sadness.
In my case, it was more like wanting to throw up.
Nobody deserves that, especially not someone who devoted so many years to pushing herself to the max — from growing up in Denver to reaching the top of the Olympic world, winning a history-making four gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games and then two more golds in 2000 at Sydney.
Covering her performances in Atlanta was something I'll never forget. The world saw her as a humble, happy-go-lucky young woman from Colorado, and that wasn't a put-on. Van Dyken was the same in real life, away from the crowds and spotlight.
My best memory took place after Van Dyken won her first gold medal. She held court with the media, gushing about what it meant to realize her highest goals. Then, as she walked away with a small U.S. Olympic Committee entourage, I asked her a question.
Since she had spent her pre-Olympic years in Colorado Springs with the resident-athlete program at the Olympic Training Center, did she have anything to say to the athletes and staff back here?
Van Dyken stopped in mid-stride. Everyone else would have to wait.
She started talking about how she wanted to share her medal with every athlete and OTC staff member back in Colorado Springs. She defended the resident-athlete concept, saying she had committed to it "for better or worse," and she gave tribute to other athletes and her coaches for their inspiration. Without all that as her foundation, Van Dyken said, she never would have made it to the Olympics and certainly wouldn't have a gold medal.
I never forgot that conversation, and years later it influenced her induction into the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame. Her story was simply remarkable, rising from a self-described 6-foot wallflower who quit her sport at one point and then returned to reach the pinnacle.
After her second gold, I wrote that she might not retire, saying, "That's perfect, because America has known Amy Van Dyken for only a week. And this is one of those relationships that you want to last forever."
But all that changed on June 6. Permanently.
As Van Dyken was taken to a plane for Denver and rehab, she sounded as determined as ever. When she went into surgery after the accident, the prognosis was shaky enough that doctors told her she might not make it. Just in case, she and husband Tom Rouen, the former punter for the Denver Broncos (1993-2002) and the University of Colorado before that, exchanged goodbyes. Imagine those emotions.
When she woke from surgery, she decided to make the most of this second chance.
She gave us all so much, and now it's time for Colorado Springs to give back. We need to figure out another way to honor her, such as putting her name on an OTC pool and perhaps a portion of the upcoming U.S. Olympic Museum, and then we need to bring her back here at an appropriate time for a ceremony and special event.
That's what America's Olympic City should do. We have to make sure Amy Van Dyken knows that Colorado Springs will never forget.
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