After ATV accident left Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken paralyzed, BOEC helps her learn to love skiing again
As Amy Van Dyken rode up the Quicksilver chairlift at Breckenridge Ski Resort on Saturday, she described her mindset in the wake of a 2014 ATV accident that left her paralyzed. And, while relaying her experience, the American Olympic champion swimmer caught herself mid-sentence.
“I kind of felt like I wanted to do everything,” Van Dyken said. “But, at the same time, I knew that I was going to be limited — pardon me — I thought I was going to be limited.”
On June 6, 2014, Van Dyken, a native of Denver who won a combined six gold medals at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, became paralyzed when her ATV careened over a 6-foot cliff near her home in Arizona. While riding up the chairlift at Breckenridge’s Peak 9 on Saturday, Van Dyken recalled how the ATV fell on her twice during the accident. The nature of the accident resulted in a Flight For Life helicopter transporting Van Dyken to a trauma center, as one of her vertebra nearly punctured her aorta.
“My doctor actually told me later that he shut down that trauma center and any trauma center he could have been called to,” Van Dyken said. “And I thought it was because I won gold medals and he was like, ‘No, it was because it was that bad.’ It was that close to being a pretty life-threatening type of deal. So that’s what happened. But, here I am.”
Here Van Dyken was on Saturday in a sit-ski on the Quicksilver chairlift at Breckenridge, riding alongside Jeff Inouye and Will Targy of the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. It was Inouye who three years ago convinced Van Dyken to give skiing with the BOEC a try after her accident. A lifelong athlete, Van Dyken and her husband, former Denver Broncos punter Tom Rouen, had skied routinely at Keystone Resort before the accident via their ski-in, sit-out home. But, after the ATV accident, Van Dyken initially doubted Inouye’s idea she’d be able to ski again.
“There was a little depression,” Van Dyken said of the aftermath of the injury. “I made my life with my body. And, now, all of a sudden I thought it was less than.”
But Van Dyken said she soon learned “it was not less than.” Not soon after the accident, she picked up CrossFit. With the help of Inouye, she skied again, via a BOEC sit-ski setup. Van Dyken has also taken up rock climbing and water skiing, as well. And, in a few months, she’ll compete at the CrossFit Games.
When Van Dyken first tried skiing three years ago with Inouye and the BOEC, she said, she felt free again as an athlete. One of the country’s greatest all-time swimmers, Van Dyken was candid in sharing that when she returned to the water after her accident, she didn’t feel that same sporting sensibility. Returning to the snow, on the other hand, felt special.
“It’s so interesting,” Van Dyken said. “People say when you are paralyzed to go in the pool and you feel free and you feel light. But when I got on the mountain, that’s where I feel free and light and fast.”
This past weekend, Van Dyken spent three days with the BOEC continuing to sharpen her sit-skiing skills, something she’s done each of the past three years. In terms of relearning how to ski, Van Dyken said though it’s been a learning curve, the principles of sit-skiing are very similar to having success in the pool. And, for her, it’s centered around not trying too hard physically.
“When you start swimming you think you need to muscle through it,” she said. “And then, when you figure out you actually need to relax most of your stroke, that’s what most of the best swimmers do. It’s the same thing in skiing. So I’ve been applying that a little bit.”
She’s progressing so well that Van Dyken said Saturday was her first post-ski morning waking up without soreness in her forearms. She credited it to the BOEC’s helping her realize she needed to chill out more in her approach to sit-skiing. But, on a sit-ski, that’s sometimes easier said than done. Inouye explained how an athlete like Van Dyken is controlling everything from the waist up. With that, it can feel like all of that upper-body and core control comes down to raw strength and muscling the sit-ski around. But once they start to relax and let the ski do what it’s designed for, all they need to do is put their body in the right position.
As Inouye and Targy trailed Van Dyken on the Silverthorne ski trail on Saturday, Van Dyken was doing just that. She smiled all the way down the mountain not only content with this newest chapter in her athletic life, but thriving within it.
“I do more now than I did when I was able-bodied,” Van Dyken said. “Because, if I failed before, people would be like, ‘Oh, I thought you were an athlete.’ Where, now, they say, ‘good for you for trying, honey!’”