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Olympic swimming great Amy Van Dyken-Rouen shakes hands with Brad Manchester, Binghamton Bearcats Athletic Association vice president, after her speech
at the 11th Annual Celebrating Women's Athletics Luncheon on Feb. 22 in the Events Center.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Olympic champion delivers inspirational message
February 23, 2016Tweet
Amy Van Dyken-Rouen can still recall being mocked as a high school freshman by the three other members of her swimming relay squad.
“As they walked away, I thought to myself: ‘Who are they to tell me what I can and can’t do?’” she said.
It is an adage that Van Dyken-Rouen has lived by, winning six Olympic gold medals in swimming and overcoming an all-terrain vehicle accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Van Dyken-Rouen shared her story at the 11th Annual Celebrating Women’s Athletics Luncheon on Feb. 22, in front of a record 620 people at the Events Center. Proceeds from the luncheon support the Binghamton Bearcats Athletic Association Women’s Scholarship Fund. Besides Van Dyken-Rouen, speakers included Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger, Director of Athletics Patrick Elliott, America East Conference Commissioner Amy Huchthausen and Binghamton student-athlete Griffin McIver.
Despite being diagnosed with severe asthma at 18 months, Van Dyken-Rouen took up swimming at age 6 and discovered her passion.
“I loved it,” she said. “It took me six years to finish one length of the pool. But I was there with my friends doing something I loved. I didn’t do it for the medals or fame. I did it because I loved it.”
Van Dyken-Rouen won her first competition at age 13 and soon tried out for her high-school swimming team. The team carried 28 members; Van Dyken-Rouen got the 28th position.
“I was the worst swimmer on the team – by far,” she said.
Van Dyken-Rouen improved so much that she received a scholarship to the University of Arizona and qualified for the 1992 Olympic Trials. She missed making the Olympic team in the 50-freestyle by 1/100 of a second.
In 1996, Van Dyken-Rouen made the Olympic team in five events: 50-free, 100-free, 100-butterfly and two relays. But the Olympic lifestyle in Atlanta took some getting used to, especially when Van Dyken-Rouen noticed her teammates in nice attire after arriving in the Olympic Village.
“I asked (swimmer) Janet Evans – who had been to the Olympics basically since they were formed – why everyone was dressed up,” Van Dyken-Rouen said. “She knows I went to school on an athletic scholarship, not academic, so she speaks slowly to me: ‘Honey, we’re going to the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.’ I said: ‘Awesome! High-five.’”
In Atlanta, Van Dyken-Rouen became the first U.S. woman to win four gold medals in a single Olympic Games. She recalled the surprise of being told about the accomplishment after her final race.
“I looked into the camera on live television and said: ‘Shut up!’”
In 2000, Van Dyken-Rouen overcame two shoulder surgeries to again qualify for the Olympic team. She won two more gold medals in Sydney. Standing on the podium for the last time, she wondered how many people at that time had their hands on their hearts listening to the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“Maybe they were singing or just standing there quiet for the first time all day because of something I had just done,” she said. “It was a surreal feeling. I can’t listen to the national anthem without thinking about that. To be able to represent your country – there is absolutely nothing like it.”
After her swimming career ended, Van Dyken-Rouen married NFL punter Tom Rouen and entered the world of sports radio. She served as the only female co-host on Fox Sports Radio, working with former major league pitcher Rob Dibble.
On June 6, 2014, the Rouens were at their home in the mountains of Arizona. Van Dyken-Rouen drove to dinner in her ATV, while her husband took his motorcycle.
“I don’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I remember that on June 6, 2014, I had trout and steamed broccoli,” she said. “I remember standing up and pushing in my chair, but the rest has been told to me from stories.”
Van Dyken-Rouen went over a six-foot embankment on the way home. Her husband found her face down with a severed spinal cord. Van Dyken-Rouen was airlifted to a hospital, where a doctor told her it was unlikely she would live. Now was the time to say goodbye to her husband.
She talked briefly to Rouen, who pulled his wife closer and said: ‘If this ever is too much for you, you can let go.’”
“I thought: ‘Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t do?’” Van Dyken-Rouen said.
Van Dyken-Rouen made it through surgery and requested a purple wheelchair with skulls. She was told she would not have movement below the hip bone. Since the accident, she has had feeling a few inches below the spot of the injury. In September 2015, she received leg braces and began the process of walking on her own.
“The other day, I took 100 steps,” she said. “There was more sweating, more cussing, more pain, more agony, more joy and more fulfillment than I had in any of my races. … Those 100 steps meant more to me than any of the (swimming) strokes.”
Van Dyken-Rouen stressed that she has been happy since the accident and lives “every day to the fullest because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“There are days when it takes everything I have to put my pants on by myself,” she said. “But I do it with a smile. I will never allow myself to have a bad day. If I have a bad morning, I take it, roll it in a ball and say: ‘Why is this making me so mad? Why is this frustrating me?’ I learn from it, move on and I don’t let it bother the rest of my day.”
Van Dyken-Rouen ended her talk with a quote from poet Beau Taplin: “She was unstoppable. Not because she did not have failures or doubts, but because she continued on despite them.”
“Continue on, ladies,” said Van Dyken-Rouen, who received a long standing ovation following her talk. “If anyone tells you that you can’t do something, if anyone tells you that you’re not good enough, pretty enough, smart enough or talented enough, I want you to look at them, think of me and say: ‘Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t do?’”