Six-Time Gold Medalist Finds New Home in Adaptive CrossFit Community
Six-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Amy Van Dyken’s incredible athletic career has been chronicled many times over. It’s a never-ending list of accolades from her earlier years as an NCAA Female Swimmer of the Year to the pinnacle of her career as the “Most Successful Athlete” at the 1996 Olympic Games with four gold medals. She won another two gold medals in 2000 and had her own Wheaties box.
All of those awards and medals now pale in comparison to the significance of her close-knit CrossFit community in Phoenix, AZ.
- Van Dyken: “The power you will find at the CrossFit gym is something that can’t be found anywhere else! You have people who are there to better themselves physically and mentally. They know that by helping each other, everyone gets stronger…as a community.”
The crash: In 2014, Van Dyken crashed her ATV while returning home from dinner at a friend’s house. The crash severed her spinal cord and left her paralyzed at the T11 vertebra. Life obviously became vastly different for the perpetually energetic and upbeat swimming star. Recovery was a long and often discouraging process until she started receiving support from a new community: Adaptive CrossFit.
Van Dyken says prior to her spinal cord injury, swimming would provide her solace by following the long blue line at the bottom of the pool during training. It was her form of mental and emotional self-care. But after her injury, swimming, which had once been her main form of physical and emotional release, no longer provided peace.
- Van Dyken: “Swimming wasn’t the same anymore. It’s not my happy place. I needed to find a happy place…and there was this huge ginger in my hospital room telling me that he and his friends were training at a CrossFit gym.” Van Dyken is lovingly referring to Kevin Ogar, who had also become paralyzed from a spinal cord injury that same year (2014). She continued, “And my happy place became the CrossFit gym.”
Ogar and the adaptive community rallied to support Van Dyken and show her a path to a physically and mentally healthy life through CrossFit. For so long, Van Dyken had trained solo in the sport of swimming. Training meant long hours in the water by herself. Sure she had teammates, but often they were competing to take her place in the Olympic Trials and Games. There was always an undercurrent of competitive tension.
Conversely, Van Dyken now says that the very same people who she competes with, in a friendly manner, are also those who provide her the most support:
- “When I first started training CrossFit, the community really took me under their wing. They gave me a place to laugh, cry and to know it’s fine to not always be okay. Without their support, I’m not sure where I would be right now,” she said.
Through the CrossFit community, her coaches and friends provide her an invigorating form of care no matter what her time was, or how well she performs in workouts.
- Van Dyken: “All of my closest friends are at CrossFit Blade, which I never thought would happen. I now look forward to waking up and getting to the gym to throw down with my family. It’s the best feeling! Okay, winning gold in the Olympics was a cool feeling too, in a way, they are the same because before I was training to win for my country, now I’m training to get my life back.”
Van Dyken began her training at CrossFit 480 and now calls CrossFit Blade home. She has even started competing again, this time in adaptive CrossFit. Last year she competed in the 2019 WheelWOD Championships, the “CrossFit Games” for adaptive CrossFit athletes. She came in second and the irony is not lost on Amy Van Dyken, the girl who only ever earns gold. Van Dyken has jokingly vowed to redeem herself and is training hard as she will again compete this year at Wodapalooza and at the 2020 WheelWOD Championships hosted by the Granite Games.