Olympian and CPN Champion Amy Van Dyken Challenges Researchers to Cure Paralysis
In June 2014, swimming enthusiasts around the world were stunned to learn that six-time Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken had been paralyzed from the waist down in an ATV accident.
On the evening of June 6, Amy was out riding with her husband when she flew over the vehicle and down an embankment. Her ATV toppled after her and landed on her back, severing her spine.
Although she doesn’t remember the accident itself, she remembers waking up in a Flight for Life helicopter and asking the paramedic if she was going to live. She didn’t receive a response. In fact, her injuries were so severe that the medical team recommended she and her husband say goodbye before surgery. Her husband told her, “If this is too much, you can let go.” She took that as a challenge: “I fought, and here I am.”
The injury was so close to her aorta that the surgeon had to move in nanometers, but she survived as a T12 paraplegic.
The recovery process
In tearful press conferences during her recovery, Amy captured major media attention and garnered global support through her positive attitude. “Yes, this injury sucks, and yes, it hurts, but I’m alive—and I’m so thankful to be alive,” she said in one interview. “That’s why I can be positive about it. It gets me through the pain.”
During her months in rehabilitation in Colorado, Amy continued to build “Amy’s Army”—what she calls her group of supporters—through chronicling her daily challenges in recovery via Twitter and Instagram.
During her career, the world-class athlete won four gold medals at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and another two gold medals at the Sydney games in 2000. Amy has applied that same Olympian drive and training rigor to her recovery in hopes that she will walk and swim again someday. Her energy and optimism were so infectious that Conquer Paralysis Now (CPN) asked her to become their next CPN Champion.
What does a cure mean to her?
“When I got injured, I hear about all these different things that could happen, but I want them to actually happen, and I want to see a cure in my lifetime. To me, a cure would mean to get my bladder, my bowel, and my sexual function back,” she said. “If the secondary part of it is that I can jump out of this chair and go hiking up Camelback Mountain again, I’ll take that as well.”
The importance of staying active
Believing that a cure is within reach, Amy encourages others with spinal cord injuries to keep physically active for when a cure does arrive.
“You don’t want to lose muscle tone in whatever extremity is paralyzed—your arms, your legs, your abs—for me, it’s my lower abs and my legs. I work them more than I work anything. If you sit there and let atrophy take over, it’s going to,” she said. “When a cure does happen, you don’t want to still be sitting in your chair. You’ve got to make sure that you are strong, both mentally and physically, so keep working out.”
Amy and the CPN Challenge
Amy has been an outspoken advocate of the CPN Challenge, an initiative to cure paralysis in the next decade by awarding nearly $20 million in grants and prizes, including a $10 million grand prize, to spinal-cord-injury research. Her challenge to the research community is to be as driven as she is in finding a cure for paralysis.
“People can’t get complacent about this. I think that if a scientist knows that there’s a $10 million prize for curing something, then they are going to work day and night to make sure that they are the one who does it. When you have a prize in front of them, they’re going to push themselves to have an answer, and people who are paralyzed will never have to hear ‘I don’t know’ ever again.”
In her lifetime, it’s Amy’s vision and belief that others who find themselves in a Flight for Life helicopter will be able to hear the words that she wasn’t: “You will live, and you will walk again.”
“When you get injured, the one thing that doctors say to you every time you ask a question is: ‘I don’t know.’ When we find a cure, people who are paralyzed will never have to hear ‘I don’t know’ ever again.”
View Amy’s CPN Champion video here.