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How Olympic Swimmer Amy Van Dyken Beat the Odds

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When doctors told Amy Van Dyken to say her goodbyes minutes before an emergency surgery for her completely severed spinal cord from a near-fatal ATV accident last June, her husband, former NFL player Tom Rouen, told her in a deeply loving moment that it was OK to let go. Van Dyken, who understood the gravity of the situation, looked him dead in the eyes and said: "Who are you to tell me what I can and can't do?" The 42-year-old Olympic swimming champion, who was left paralyzed from the waist down, repeated a similar sentiment over and over again (after the life-saving procedure) to anyone who mentioned she would never walk again.

"I was not supposed to make the Olympic team, but I did. I was supposed to win a bronze, but I walked away with six gold medals. Don't tell me what to do," a defiant Van Dyken told a room full of sports industry leaders and top pro female athletes at the sixth annual espnW Women + Sports Summit earlier this month as she recounted her journey. Days before the summit, she took her first 50 steps since her ATV accidentally hit a curb, launching her over a six-foot embankment that broke her in half.

"I would train every single day for six to eight hours a day and my longest race was a minute. I would train 10,000 to 12,000 meters a day for one 25-meter length of the pool that took me 26 strokes. The other day, I took 50 steps. It was the the hardest thing I've ever done. Those 50 steps took me over an hour. I was sweating, crying, and cursing. I remember in the pool when I was sweating, crying, and cursing and I did something absolutely amazing. Here's what I'm here to tell you: If they tell you 'you can't' or they tell you 'you will never', those people are jealous because you are better than them and because you are fabulous...you can do absolutely anything you want to do," she said at the summit.

We were so inspired by her courageous words that we rang her up after the summit to learn more about what stokes her fire to do the impossible. Use her wise words to light your own inner fuego. (And learn to Overcome Life's Toughest Situations.)

Let Your Passion Find You
Before becoming an Olympic champion, you first need to fall in love with your sport. Van Dyken didn't seek out swimming; rather, it came to her as a way to hang out with friends, who chose the chlorinated backdrop as their chill zone. "I jumped in the pool and started swimming with them. I just kept at it. Then it turned into winning my first race and making my mom and dad really proud of me," she recalls.

Remember, You're on Borrowed Time
"I almost wasn't here. I am here for a reason. I'm on borrowed time. If today is my last day, I don't want it to be a bad one. I want to make it as good as possible," Van Dyken says. Living life to the fullest isn't a new concept, yet it's still one many of us have trouble putting into practice on a daily basis. Van Dyken urges you to stop sitting on the sidelines and go for what you want—before the clock runs out.

Embrace Your Independence
As an Olympian, drive and determination were already part of Van Dyken's DNA. What she was missing until the accident, however, was a sense of independence. "My mom came to visit not too long ago and she said that I'm more independent than I was before," she says. "Maybe it's because I want to show you and myself that I can do it—and I can do it on my own. One thing that they taught me at the rehab hospital is if someone offers you a push up a hill, never turn it down. Well, I actually never say, 'Yes, I would like to a push up the hill.' I want to do it! I'm more powerful than I thought I was, not just physically, but mentally for sure."

When the Going Gets Tough, Smile
It's easy to let a bad day bring you down, but you don't have to just sit there and take it. "You have to be able to pull yourself up and out of it," Van Dyken says. Sound impossible when you're just feeling extra low? Try smiling, she advises. "I know that's hard to do when your boss is down your throat or your significant other is on your back. But if you can just smile, it really turns everything around." And to actually boost your mood, consider our 7-Step Guide to Happiness.

Prove Them Wrong
Determined to walk, Van Dyken would put on this intense-looking exoskeleton, which she described as "basically a robot that they strapped on my legs, waist, and back and programmed it to help me walk." When they first started doing what she called "Walking Wednesdays" at her rehab hospital, this machine would do all of the work. Over time, she began toning down the machine to take on more of the workload. "It got to a point that I was using so much of my own muscle that they took me out of the exoskeleton and got me fitted with these Forest Gump braces. Once I got them on and stood up, it was crazy. There was no machine helping me; it was all me. I had to find my own balance and take steps using a walker all by myself," she says. "Those 50 steps down the hallway and back were harder and more rewarding than any of those strokes ever were in the pool."

 

A video posted by Amy Van Dyken (@amyvandyken) on


Be Ready for Opportunity Whenever It Arises
"There are so many advances that are coming up in science that there is now a possibility that all of us paraplegics may be able to get up and walk again," Van Dyken says. "I don't want to be that person who is so out of shape because I haven't been working out my body that they go, 'Oh yeah, you're not going to be able to walk for another six years.' I want that person that when they to look at me, they'll say, 'Oh yeah, you'll be able to walk tomorrow.'" Bottom line: You need to keep pushing yourself forward regardless of your situation.

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