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Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken returns to competition for first time since being paralyzed

  • June 30, 2019

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Former Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, who suffered a spinal cord injury in an ATV accident, is training to compete in the WheelWOD Games.
Tom Tingle, The Republic | azcentral.com

PHOENIX — It’s been almost 20 years since Amy Van Dyken-Rouen swam in her second Olympics. 

And five years since her spinal cord injury from an ATV accident in Show Low that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

Time passages, the kind that can be tricky since the new normal, as she calls it, is so life altering that it overshadows even her six Olympic gold medals in a way that once never seemed possible.

Competitive Amy still exists, though, and she now has found the right outlet as an adaptive athlete. 

Van Dyken-Rouen, of Scottsdale, will compete next week in Canada in the WheelWOD Games, an adaptive CrossFit competition that requires making a cut to the top 12 in the world to earn an invitation. In a sense, she’s already won, since a year ago when starting down this road fitness was her only objective.

“It’s going to be awesome just to get out there and get the competitive juices flowing,” she said. “It’s cool adaptive sports are being recognized and hopefully I will have a little part in that. I’ve said before I want to change the world.”

That might entail the improbable — finding a way to walk again even given her severe T11 paraplegia — or something that seems impossible but shouldn’t be, like a parking system allowing for handicap parking in the front and wheelchair parking with sufficient access further back.

Through her foundation, Van Dyken-Rouen is changing the world for others by funding custom wheelchairs for those in need referred by hospitals around the country. Like a 3-year-old named Savannah from St. Louis who had trouble deciding between pink or purple and whether she wanted sparkles on her power wheelchair.

“I’m trying to teach the world not to be afraid of us,” Van Dyken-Rouen said. “We just got a boo boo. I make them interested.”

There is a time to be fearful of Van Dyken-Rouen at 46, same as when she was 23 and spitting water into an opponent’s lane on her way to becoming the first U.S. women to win four gold medals at a single Olympics (Atlanta 1996).

She began doing adaptive CrossFit last summer while in her native Colorado working out at a gym owned by Kevin Ogar, also paralyzed from the waist down due to a freak weight-lifting accident in 2014. 

“I just fell in love with it,” Van Dyken-Rouen said. “This is the way I trained (for swimming) at the Olympic Training Center. It’s throwing Olympic weights around. I’ve done it my whole life. 

“Wheelchair racing is more of an endurance sport, and we all know I had a hard time finishing 100 meters. This is more power, effort, sprinting.”

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  • Six-time Olympic swimming medalist Amy Van Dyken-Rouen will be competing July 3-6 at the WheelWOD Games in Canada, an adaptive CrossFit competition.1 of 8
  • Former Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, who was paralyzed in an ATV accident, trains for her first athletic competition since the accident, the WheelWOD Games.2 of 8
  • Amy Van Dyken-Rouen lifts weights as she trains for the WheelWOD Games.3 of 8
  • Amy Van Dyken-Rouen smiles during a workout at Blade Method-Crossfit Blade  on June 24.4 of 8
  • Amy Van Dyken-Rouen works on ring pullups with coach Anthony Baca at Blade Method-Crossfit Blade in Phoenix on June 24.5 of 8
  • Amy Van Dyken-Rouen will compete at the WheelWOD Games on July 3-6, her first competition since injuring her spine in an ATV accident.6 of 8
  • Amy Van Dyken-Rouen does a workout at Blade Method-Crossfit Blade on June 24.7 of 8
  • Amy Van Dyken-Rouen shares a light moment with Chris Treanor, co-owner and coach at Blade Method-Crossfit Blade on June 24.8 of 8

Ogar referred her to CrossFit Blade in northwest Phoenix, where she made an appointment to meet with co-owner/coach Chris Treanor, who didn’t recognize the name Rouen.

“I was fired up to work with adaptive athletes,” Treanor said. “I met her in the front lobby and didn’t recognize her. I put her through a workout and was talking to her afterwards about how fit she was.” 

That’s when Amy played the Van Dyken card, not to brag but for informational purposes.

“I just felt like a complete idiot,” Treanor said. “I was star struck almost, but I’m happy I didn’t know who she was (at first). I just said, ‘No wonder you’re so fit.'”

In February, Van Dyken-Rouen completed one of the five workouts required to qualify for the WheelWOD Games in the seated women division. Her score was an eye-opening second best overall. By March, she and Treanor came around to thinking “this could happen. I didn’t re-do a couple of them, which you can if you want to improve your score, and I still made top 12 in the world.”

Since officially qualifying, she’s been training 2-3 hours most days to prepare for 12 workouts, Wednesday-Saturday in Collingwood, Ontario, east of Toronto. The first workout includes swimming, paddle board and push-ups. After that, what’s coming is a surprise but likely will include pull-ups, burpees (a form of squat thrusts), sled pulling, medicine ball work, weight lifting and rope climbing.

“She wasn’t close to climbing a few months ago,” Treanor said. “Now she can do it six times from the floor. That’s an amazing accomplishment and the reason she won six Olympic gold medals. When she is going hard, you can see that look in her eyes and had better watch out.”

Van Dyken-Rouen already is joking (maybe) about spitting in the lane of a Paralympic swimmer who claims he is faster than her, a tactic she was famous for in her Olympic days. When people at CrossFit Blade see Competitive Amy come out during workouts, she merely explains that this is what the beast looks like.

“I’m feeling like I did when I was tapering in swimming (for a major meet),” she said. “I didn’t think I’d get those back ever in my lifetime. It’s pretty cool just to see what I can do at my age, my injury level and all of that.”

On Nov. 1, Van Dyken-Rouen will be inducted into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame based largely on her two-year swim career at the University of Arizona where she set her first American record. Now, though, she’ll have another major athletic achievement as an Arizona resident added to her HOF resume.

Best of all, with her pain management much improved in recent years, she’s a happier person inside to match the public persona she’s presented since her accident.

“I feel hopeful again in the world,” she said. “I feel like a member of society again where before I was in so much pain, I just couldn’t go out. Now I’m out all the time,” back driving a Camaro instead of a mom SUV. “It’s been five years. I hardly remember what it’s like to walk anymore, for good or bad. But that’s OK. I’m getting into a rhythm. This is now my new normal.”

Reach the reporter at jeff.metcalfe@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8053. Follow him on Twitter @jeffmetcalfe.

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  • This photo taken on July 20, 2018, shows Fu Niu Lele, the mascot for the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, lying among trees behind an abandoned, never-completed mall. A decade after Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, its legacy remains unmistakable from the smallest alleyways in the Chinese capital to the country's growing clout abroad. For better or worse, the Games changed the face of Beijing. But many of the venues built for the Games have fallen into disrepair.1 of 19
  • The National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest.2 of 19
  • Trees and weeds at the finish line of the BMX track.3 of 19
  • Another view of the finish line at the abandoned BMX track.4 of 19
  • People tend to a plot of vegetables near the finish line of the BMX track.5 of 19
  • This is how the BMX park looked in 2008.6 of 19
  • Grass grows in the Beach Volleyball stadium.: AFP_1837KI7 of 19
  • Rotting wood at what once was the grandstand at the beach volleyball stadium.8 of 19
  • A faded sign that once welcomed spectators to the beach volleyball venue.9 of 19
  • The beach volleyball venue in 2008.10 of 19
  • The whitewater kayaking stadium, empty except for garbage.11 of 19
  • Standing water in the whitewater kayaking stadium.12 of 19
  • The Olympic rings logo, faded, at the entrance to the whitewater kayaking stadium.13 of 19
  • The kayak venue in 2008.14 of 19
  • The abandoned Olympic rings at the entrance to the canoeing and rowing venue.15 of 19
  • A rusted logo on the fence outside the canoeing and rowing venue.16 of 19
  • Beibei, one of five mascots for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, lies abandoned among the trees in a never-completed mall.17 of 19
  • Nini (L) and Yingying, two of the five mascots for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.18 of 19
  • The Water Cube, the swimming venue for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.19 of 19

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