If you start dwelling on the negative stuff, you go down this really dark rabbit hole and when you get down in that rabbit hole, it's like Alice in Wonderland. It's really hard to get out. So take it, learn from it and then move on. —Amy Van Dyken-Rouen
CHICAGO — Even before the accident, Amy Van Dyken-Rouen's message was the same.
"Enjoy every single moment, because you don't know what's around the next turn," she said.
For her, a Friday night out for dinner in June turned into a life-altering event. The six-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer crashed in an all-terrain vehicle on the way home. Her spine was severed and she was paralyzed from the waist down. Her prognosis was so bleak that doctors told her to say goodbye to her husband.
She did — but had the chance to say hello again. Surgeons saved her.
Her occasional updates on social media have been upbeat and filled mostly with good news. She is excited to face the challenge of learning how to live without use of her legs. Her enthusiasm is not an act.
"It's just who I am," said Van Dyken-Rouen, who gave the keynote speech at the U.S. Olympic Committee assembly Friday night. "I put out there exactly what's going on and exactly what I feel because you can't really make this stuff up. At least not for this long. You can make it up for a day or two, but it would get exhausting. I'm just myself and that's it."
She is back at home in Scottsdale, Arizona, nearly three months after the accident. A group of workers has made her house handicap-accessible, and she is back in the pool on a daily basis.
Her attitude is pretty much the same.
"You learn from everything that happens in your life," she said. "But also, you go, 'OK, that really sucked but I'm not going to dwell on it.' If you start dwelling on the negative stuff, you go down this really dark rabbit hole and when you get down in that rabbit hole, it's like Alice in Wonderland. It's really hard to get out. So take it, learn from it and then move on."
For Van Dyken-Rouen, moving on includes starting a charity called Amy's Army, which will raise money to buy equipment for paralyzed people who see their everyday lives turned upside-down.
About a month ago, she posted pictures on Twitter of herself taking steps with the help of a walker and a bionic exoskeleton device.
All great, she said, but her real mission is to use that technology to help others.
She hasn't given up on walking under her own power again.
And since the injury, she has often been asked if the Paralympics are in her future. Since retiring after the 2000 Olympics, the 41-year-old has gotten more into triathlons, which, as luck would have it, will make their Paralympic debut in Rio de Janeiro.
"It sparked my interest," she said. "Will I do it? I'm so old, nobody wants to see this hot mess in a swimsuit anymore. So, I'm going to go with 'No.'"
But she will compete at some level.
"It's not completely over," she said. "I'm not sure you ever get that out of your system."
Follow Eddie Pells on Twitter at www.twitter.com/epells