By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, September 5, 2019
When an ATV accident in 2014 severed her spinal column and left her paralyzed from the waist down, Amy Van Dyken-Rouen was faced with coming to terms that her life would involve a new normal.
During her competitive swimming days, she was notorious for never backing down from a challenge, and she relied upon that same competitive resolve to embrace a new opportunity to conquer and move forward before she even left the hospital.
Intimidation coupled with immense talent and an amazing work ethic backed up her incredible nerve and unwavering spirit to bring her four gold medals at the 1996 Olympics and two more at the 2000 Sydney Games.
And even though this was a different battle with different life circumstances, she met it head-on just as she did for many years in the pool.
“I was still at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., when Kevin Ogar came to my room and got me excited about competing in adaptive CrossFit,” said Van Dyken-Rouen, who had been involved with CrossFit for many years during and after her swimming career as a way to stay flexible and in shape.
“He told me I was going to do something amazing again, and those words gave me something to strive for despite my situation. It was exactly what I needed to hear at the right time.”
Ogar knew what he was talking about. Having been a CrossFit competitor before his own weightlifting accident in 2014 left him a paraplegic, Ogar channeled Van Dyken-Rouen’s innate competitive drive into what’s becoming a very successful adaptive CrossFit platform.
CrossFit, a branded fitness regimen created by Greg Glassman, involves a combination of strength and conditioning consisting mainly of aerobic exercise , calisthenics, (body weight exercises) and Olympic weightlifting.
Hour-long classes at affiliated gyms typically include a warm-up, a skill development segment, the high-intensity "workout of the day" (or WOD) and a period of individual or group stretching.
This past July in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada, she finished second in the WheelWOD Games, her first athletic competition since her injury.
WheelWOD Games is the pinnacle event for adaptive fitness for the best athletes in the world. Each division qualified through the WheelWOD open and sanctioned events. Athletes from all over the world battle for the title of the fittest adaptive athlete in the world. It requires making a cut to the top 12 in the world to earn an invitation.
Representing CrossFit Blade, a gym in Phoenix, 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. She was first in two of the workouts and second in seven others.
“I needed something like this to get my competitive juices flowing again; that was important to me mentally, physically and emotionally after my injury,” said Van Dyken-Rouen, who won the ESPY for Female Athlete of the Year along with being named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, USOC Sports Woman of the Year, Women Sports Foundation Sports Woman of the Year and USA Swimming Swimmer of the Year for her performance at the Atlanta Olympics.
When she started more than a year ago, it was about fitness more than athletic success.
Now, it’s about making the most of competitive opportunities and satiating her competitive nature.
“Having a competitive outlet like adaptive CrossFit has given me that physical motivation I always loved about swimming. I’m confident I would have found something athletic to do no matter what – it’s part of who I am – but this came to be at the perfect time when I needed it most.”
This past February, after working with CrossFit Blade Coach Chris Treanor, Van Dyken-Rouen completed one of the five workouts required to qualify for the WheelWOD Games in the seated women’s division. Her score was an eye-opening second-best overall.
By March, she and Treanor came around to thinking it was possible. After qualifying, she spent between 2 and 3 hours each day training to prepare for the 12 workouts at WheelWOD. The first workout involved swimming, paddle boarding and pushups.
After that, events included pull-ups, burpees (a form of squat thrusts), sled pulling, medicine ball work, weightlifting and rope climbing.
In addition to training for her next competition, Van Dyken-Rouen makes time when she can to co-host Deck Pass Live presented by Xfinity for USA Swimming (she manned the desk during recent FINA World Championships) and is loving continuing to be involved with the sport even though she admits she doesn’t swim these days because it’s too tough for her not to be able to do what she once did before her accident.
Still, she is finding new ways to use her celebrity and connections for the greater good. She founded Amy’s Army, a network of dedicated individuals who work to better the lives of people living with spinal cords – particularly children – and through the Amy Van Dyken Foundation, she is funding custom wheelchairs for those in need as referred by hospitals around the country through Wheels for Kids.
“We hear from so many kids who need wheelchairs that fit them and their needs; most are just too big for them to maneuver, so we want to help them get what they need by filling in the gaps and working with various partners to trade in poor-fitting wheelchairs for ones that fit right and allow kids better movement and freedom,” she said.
“For instance, I heard from a young girl named Emma who is home-schooled because she was embarrassed to have a wheelchair that didn’t fit her at school. We worked to get her one that fits her and works better for her and now she had the confidence to go to 'real' school. Hearing stories like that lets me know that what happened to me has had positive outcomes. It’s not always easy, but I love seeing the good that comes from this.”