Amy Van Dyken, who won six swimming gold medals at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, is reportedly in good condition at an Arizona hospital’s intensive-care unit after severing her spine in an all-terrain vehicle accident Friday, the Associated Press is reporting. She told emergency workers that she could not move her toes or feel anything touching her legs.
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A letter from the Van Dyken and Rouen families said she severed her spinal cord at the T11 vertebrae and that the broken vertebrae came within millimeters of rupturing her aorta.
A report by the Show Low Police Department said the ATV that Rouen was driving hit a curb in a restaurant parking lot and sent her over a drop-off between 1.5 to 2 meters.
Rouen was found lying on the ground next to the ATV. She was strapped to a backboard and airlifted to Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center.
A witness said he saw Rouen launch over the curb and found her unresponsive when he arrived on the scene, the report said. Rouen was not wearing a helmet at the time.
Her husband, former Denver Broncos punter Tom Rouen, told police officers he had changed the throttle mechanism on the ATV from a thumb accelerator to a twist accelerator a few days before the accident, though wasn’t sure if it was a factor in the accident.
He said his wife had not been drinking alcohol that evening.
Van Dyken, who has since taken her husband’s last name, won four gold medals — in the 50-meter freestyle, 100 butterfly 400 freestyle relay and 400 medley relay — at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, becoming the first U.S. female athlete to win four in a single Games. She followed that up with gold medals in the two relay events at the 2000 Games in Sydney. In later years, she worked in local radio in Arizona and also for Fox Sports Radio. In 2003, she testified before a grand jury investigating the BALCO doping scandal. Rouen never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during her career.
“The USA Swimming family is devastated to learn of Amy Van Dyken’s unfortunate accident this weekend,” the organization said in a statement released to the AP. “We’re happy to hear that she escaped and is now in great care. That she is already ‘acting like her typical spunky, boisterous, ebullient self’ shows she’s on a great path.”
“Amy is a champion who has proven throughout her life that she is a fighter who takes on challenges and comes out on top. We know Amy will tackle her rehabilitation with vigor and be back on her feet sooner rather than later,” it said.
According to a doctor contacted by the Denver Post, Van Dyken is unlikely to recover the use of her legs after the accident.
Dr. Vikas Patel, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Hospital and the chief orthopedic spine surgeon, has not seen Van-Dyken-Rouen’s injury nor consulted with her doctors, but said such an injury to the T11 vertebra is devastating.
“The T11 is one of the vertebrae in the middle of the back, and it’s a relatively stiff and strong vertebra,” Patel said. “It means there had to have been a tremendous amount of force.”
Patel said much recovery from such an injury is unlikely. One of the effects could be that her legs will be paralyzed, but Patel said time will tell how much she recovers. It could take weeks or months to fully understand what may or may not recover.