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April 14, 2017

Olympian Amy Van Dyken-Rouen Finds New Freedom in Downhill Adaptive Skiing

BY Angel MedFlight
amy van dyken-rouen skiing using adaptive sport skis in Colorado

It’s been nearly three years since an ATV accident left Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, a six time Olympic champion, who was paralyzed from the waist down.  Angel MedFlight consequently transported Amy on a medical flight to Craig Hospital for advanced Spinal Cord rehabilitation. For most of us, a life-altering event like this would be devastating.   But Amy’s inner fire and resilient soul would have none of that. From the moment her life changed forever, her strength and determination was a beacon of hope for so many others who have suffered through similar injuries. Despite her injuries, Amy found adaptive sports and decided to hit the ski slopes. 

Her recovery and redefinition of paraplegia continues today as Amy continues to push the needle and defy all odds.   With the same spirit that helped her win six gold medals in Atlanta and Sydney, Amy has her sights on a brand new sport.  Downhill skiing with Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center.

Adaptive sports has grown over the last few decades and continues to provide sporting outlets for individuals with physical disabilities and their families. Adaptive Adventures is one company that provides a range of these activities in partnership with Craig Hospital in Colorado – the same facility that initially treated Dyken-Rouen. Adaptive Adventures eventually took Amy kayaking using similar adaptive equipment. 

Adaptive Adventures was founded by Matt Feeney in 1999. Feeney – an avid mountain biker and skier – suffered a cliff diving accident at Lake Powell in 1988 and it left him paralyzed from the waist down. In 1991, Feeney left the financial industry in Denver and moved to Winter Park to pursue adaptive ski racing and become more involved in outdoor recreation.

“We provide progressive outdoor sports lessons to improve the quality of life for children, adults, and veterans with physical disabilities and their families,” Chelsea Elder, Assistant Director of Adaptive Adventures said.

“We have twelve specific events with Craig Hospital to help continue our mission,” Elder said. “It’s all about getting access to the equipment for those in need.”

Adaptive Adventures travels the country with 14 trailers filled with adaptive equipment providing programs to under served areas of the country. Adaptive Adventures provides programs in 23 states, collaborating with over 80 community partners across the country including rehab hospitals, park districts, VA medical centers, military hospitals, veteran service organizations and other adaptive sport programs. 

Olympic Rehabilitation and Recovery

The road to recovery creates challenges for Olympians and non-Olympians alike.

“I want to spread the message that your life doesn’t have to end because you have a spinal cord injury,” Amy said. “You can still do things. If you want to participate in tennis or rock climbing, or whatever it is, you can still do that!”

Amy took to the slopes at Colorado’s Breckenridge Education Center on a specially equipped single ski that gives her the freedom to enjoy the outdoors in ways she did prior to her accident.   She hopes to lead by example, showing that even a spinal cord injury can’t take away the thrill of life and speeding downhill. 

As she recently stated on the TODAY show, “It’s like freedom. A lot of people who are injured say that getting in the swimming pool is liberating and free for them. For me, that’s where I feel the most paralyzed.  This to me is freedom.”

Amy’s guiding light continues to shine in other areas as well.   As we reported back in 2015, a mere six months after her injury, she launched Amy’s Army and the Amy Van Dyken Foundation.   Both organizations were created to support others who have experienced similar injuries.  

Staying Connected After a Spinal Cord Injury

According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, there are approximately 282,000 people living in the United States with a spinal cord injury, with close to 17,000 new cases per year.   While some view spinal cord injuries as a tragic end to quality of life, many organizations see it as an opportunity to bring awareness to the cause, and hope to those affected.

“It’s important to offer engaging programs that encourage socialization, family participation and inclusive community integration,” Elder said.

Similarly, Amy’s Army focuses on helping the under-insured with inevitable expenses that can cost up to $1 million in the first year alone following an injury.   Aside from medical expenses, there’s a vast array of equipment needed to accomplish routine tasks such as cooking, showering, using the restroom, and driving.   In most cases, the basics for living are very expensive, and often not covered by insurance.   Amy’s Army and Adaptive Adventures offset these costs through donations and by creating awareness..

So how does Amy stay so optimistic, driven, taking on each challenge every day with a smile on her face?    Even her husband, Tom Rouen is amazed by her positive attitude and outlook on life. 

“From the day she woke up in surgery, I just could never understand how happy she was, and so excited about life,” he said. “That’s just so infectious.”

Mo Gawdat, a Chief Business officer with Google, who lost his own son in tragic circumstances, might have said it best as he defined “happiness”.

“Happiness is in looking at the glass and seeing the truth in the glass.  Seeing the half full side and being grateful for it.  Seeing the half empty side and asking – can I do anything about it?  If not, can I accept it?  Truly, happiness isn’t about what the world gives you – how much water is in this glass.   Happiness is about what you think about what the world gives you”

For Amy Van Dyken Rouse, this analogy captures her heart and sprit perfectly.  Not only is she grateful for what she’s been given and clearly views every day on earth as a gift, but she also embraces the half-empty side, while vacillating between acceptance and drive to expect more. She takes her perceived disadvantages and turning them into advantages in order to challenge and change the world with her infectious laugh and Olympic spirit that keeps pushing us forward.    She has a true heart of a champion, and we were honored to be part of her journey to recovery.