Amy Van Dyken once suffered from being, using her word, “jaded” about her fellow humans.
She believed “people were out to get each other.” This is a cynical view, but helpful to a competitor.
Van Dyken competed in the pool with a me-first attitude against an array of other me-first swimmers. In this ultra-aggressive realm, she won six Olympic gold medals and became a sports celebrity.
Then everything changed.
In June 2014, Van Dyken was riding an all-terrain vehicle near her home in Arizona. She has clear memories from most of that day. She remembers she ate trout and steamed broccoli. She remembers taking a shower not long before her ride.
But she has no memory of the ride and no explanation for why the ATV crashed after descending into a steep ravine. She suffered a severed spine. She was given a 20-percent chance to live.
She made a miraculous recovery, but suffered paralysis below the waist. She confesses to sometimes feeling angry as she navigates difficult days, but is quick to say everyone struggles with anger.
She’s no longer jaded. She is joyfully stunned, time after time, by the kindness of strangers. She gets stuck at a corner in her wheelchair, and someone quickly and happily offers aid. She gets emotional as she remembers the hundreds – and hundreds – of messages she received in the hospital.
“I think the human race is awesome,” said the woman who spent years misjudging that race.
Van Dyken spoke from her wheelchair Thursday morning to 800 rapt listeners at Peak Vista Community Health’s annual Breakfast of Champions. She talked about a girl who grew up on Kettle Circle in Englewood, a girl who barely made the Cherry Creek High swim team as a freshman, a girl who told herself and anyone listening she someday would wear a gold medal around her neck.
She talked vividly about the sensation of racing to gold in the 1996 Olympics. The noise from the crowd was so loud she could feel the vibration even with her head submerged in water. She had promised herself she would rule the world, but many of us make massive, hard-to-reach promises to ourselves.
Van Dyken is a rarity. She kept her promise.
After retirement, she kept winning, kept grabbing what she wanted. She became a highly paid radio disc jockey and, later, a sports talk host.
Her run of success even ran to romance. Van Dyken, a Colorado native, grew up adoring the Broncos.
“What do you do when you’re a huge Denver Bronco fan?” Van Dyken asked before quickly answering.
“You go find one and marry him.”
She found and married Tom Rouen, a Bronco punter who once wore No. 16. She still becomes briefly confused when she sees Bennie Fowler III, the current No. 16, catching passes.
It was Rouen who found her after the accident. She wasn’t breathing, and it took 40 minutes for medical help to arrive at the remote location. She remembers wondering if she was destined to die. She was too young, she kept telling herself, even as she realized age didn’t matter.
Today, she talks of her blessings with such fervor you realize she’s not just talking.
She truly believes she’s blessed.
“I’m on borrowed time, and I don’t want this borrowed time to be me being cranky and angry,” she said.
She does not dwell on her troubles. She declines to think about the what-ifs.
“What I saw after my injury is people have so much compassion for other people,” said the woman who has escaped the jaded trap.