The Talking Series is a weekly segment that delves deeper into topics discussed by guests on the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast.
In 1979, a Colorado doctor attempted to save the life of a six-year-old girl who suffered from three types of severe asthma. While his approach was unconventional, he believed that if she spent time in a swimming pool, her lungs would strengthen. He was right. The doctor had no way of knowing that this recommendation sparked a journey that would change the course of sport’s history. That little girl was future six-time Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken. Swimming saved her life and allowed her to make history 17 years later as the first American female to win four gold medals at a single Olympic Games.
The Olympic Hall of Fame swimmer recently joined us on the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast. This article explores her remarkable ability to overcome obstacles and sheds light on her impact on Michael Phelps’ Olympic career.
The Heart of a Champion
If you’ve spent time around the sport of competitive swimming, you know there’s such a thing as the ideal swimmer’s body. While some features, such as broad shoulders, a strong core, and endurance are earned in the pool, other characteristics come down to genetics. Great swimmers are generally taller than average, have long torsos, and possess a greater concentration of fast-twitch muscle fibers. This genetic component gives people the impression that champion swimmers are born, not made. It’s also a convenient excuse for those unwilling to do the work. The only real difference is that great swimmers are willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. They show up early and stay late, swim countless laps, and sacrifice every ounce of themselves for the dream of representing their nation on the world stage.
Van Dyken, who couldn’t swim a lap until 12, proved that greatness is all about heart. “When I started [swimming competitively], I’d hang on the lane line gasping for air,” she says. Several times during those early years, paramedics pulled her out of the pool because her lips had turned blue. While it would have been easy for her to quit and blame physical limitations, that’s not what someone with heart does. In fact, Van Dyken knew she was a champion long before she let the world in on her secret.
Van Dyken was an all-American who set five school records and two state records in high school. She was named the 1991 Colorado Swimmer of the Year and qualified for the 1992 Olympic trials. She accomplished all of this while struggling with limited lung capacity and a problem far too many students face, “I was bullied pretty bad in high school,” she says. Like every other adversity in her life, Van Dyken overcame her high school years. Then, in 1994, after attending the University of Arizona for two years, she transferred to Colorado State. While there, she broke the national 50-meter freestyle record and was named the NCAA Female Swimmer of the Year.
Unless you were an avid swimming fan, you wouldn’t have known who Van Dyken was in 1995—but by the summer of 1996, she was a household name. That was when she became the first female athlete (in any sport) to earn four gold medals in a single Games, which she accomplished with a lung capacity of only 63 percent. In 2000, after winning another two gold medals in Sydney, Van Dyken retired from the sport she’d spent her life pursuing.
In 2014, Van Dyken faced the biggest challenge of her life when she was involved in a severe ATV accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Like everything else in life, she faced it with incredible strength. Van Dyken says that after the accident, her mindset was, “I don’t want to look back, I want to look forward…and help as many people as I can, because this isn’t an easy road for anybody.” With the support of her husband, former NLF punter Tom Rouen, that’s what Van Dyken did. Through it all, she never lost her zest for life or sense of humor, “You know, I can still wear high heels. They just don’t hurt my feet. I want to show people that I do the same things, but in a different way.”
Why We Should Thank Her…
Within the first five minutes of speaking with Van Dyken, it’s clear how funny she is. This is evident when she says, “Michael Phelps would not be Michael Phelps without Amy Van Dyken.” While it was still early in the interview, I knew this story would be a great one. Van Dyken continues, “So [Phelps] was 15 years old at his first Olympics. I [was] coming off becoming the first American woman to win four golds…so he followed me around [asking] ‘Do I put my swimsuit on? Do I need to warm up? Do I need to warm down?’ So, you’re welcome for Michael Phelps wearing a swimsuit and knowing when to warm up and warm down.”
Saying that Van Dyken’s story is inspirational is an understatement. Even though she’s faced obstacles since birth, she’s never let them stand in her way. Today, Van Dyken is a motivational speaker who helps others by sharing her struggles and successes. She is truly an incredible person who shows us what it means to live life to the fullest, and how to do it with heart.
Check out the whole conversation with Van Dyken on The Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast. Available now.