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Amy Van Dyken-Rouen reveals what got her back in the water 1 year after accident

Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken-Rouen reflects on her inspiring recovery one year after she was paralyzed from the waist down in an ATV accident.
/ Source: TODAY

One year after the ATV accident that left her paralyzed, six-time Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken-Rouen continues to seize every day in her quest to one day walk again.

"I wasn't supposed to be here today, so make it a great day,'' Van Dyken-Rouen told TODAY at her home in Arizona. "Every day I'm doing something different, something new. I don't want my entire day to be wasted by me whining and crying. So there will be moments, but it has to be a moment, because you don't know what is around the corner.''

Van Dyken-Rouen does rehabilitation work three days a week and works out on her own, and has hit some inspiring milestones along the way. She's stood with the help of an exoskeleton and pedaled a bike with her own strength. She's also felt reflexes in her knees and ankles.

"One of the words you could use is 'remarkable,''' her physical therapist, Al Biemond of Barrow Neurological Institute, told TODAY. "It's been remarkable to have the changes here that we've seen at Barrow. She's made a lot of improvements."

One area where she has hesitated was once the site of her greatest Olympic triumphs: the swimming pool. In 1996, she was the first female American athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympics. It took a little nudge from a furry friend to get her back into the pool after her accident.

"I really hadn't swum for a year,'' she said. "I had tried it. Did not like it. That was when I felt the most paralyzed I've ever felt. I could do anything I wanted to do in the water, and I can't really do that any more. So literally a few days ago [my dog Kuma] jumped in the water, and I looked at [my husband] Tom and I said, 'All right. I'm gonna try it.'''

While she has been relentlessly positive, there have been some dark times, particularly in managing pain caused by her condition.

"There were times where I would just sit there and cry to Tom,'' she said. "What is he gonna do? He can't fix it. Those were the down times when, you know, people say, 'Oh, you're always smiling and happy.' But you don't want to really show all of that. It was really hard. It was almost to the point where you feel helpless."

Thanks to some help from her friends, her home in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband, former NFL punter Tom Rouen, has been modified with a new kitchen, car and chair that have helped make her daily life easier.

"If the day comes that everything is back to exactly how it was, then that'll be normal,'' Tom told TODAY. "To me this is temporary, and hopefully one day she'll be back up on her feet."

"For me, that's hard to hear, because this is the new normal,'' Amy said. "This is how it has to be. Coming up on a year, I just feel like if I don't walk again, if this is it, I don't want to disappoint him. For me this is the new normal, but I want it to be normal for him."

Amy Van Dyken
Former Olympian Amy Van Dyken-Rouen updates TODAY on her health and recent milestones.TODAY

"It's just you go through all this rehab and you want her to be the way she was before,'' Tom said. "If this is where it ends up, then I'm fine with that. But I just want to keep pushing and pushing and pushing until we don't have any more progress. And so far we keep getting progress."

The couple have forged an even closer bond through the ordeal of the past year.

"It could have been a year that tore us apart,'' Amy said. "It could have been a year with a lot of more tragedy than it is now. Instead, we're really close, and I think we're getting through it. Every single day is a challenge, but we look at it and we jump the hurdle."

Van Dyken-Rouen has not only been diligent in her own recovery, she has also worked hard with her husband to help others by forming Amy's Army, an organization that helps improve the lives of people with spinal cord injuries, including providing them with equipment that is not covered by insurance.

"You're hit with this life-altering accident, and now you have to pay up to a million dollars a year out of pocket? To me that was ridiculous,'' she said. "So that was the moment that Amy's Army was founded. I said, 'We have to do something different.' We're helping people with spinal cord injuries get those items that they need."

Van Dyken-Rouen also inked up her arm with a tattoo of a phoenix rising from the ashes that inspires her during the more difficult times.

"Underneath the phoenix is the last crazy heart rate that I had [after the accident], then it went into my normal heart rate,'' she said. "It went from bad to good, and that's just me, and I'm a phoenix rising from the ashes. I look at this and go, 'You know, whatever you're having issues with right now, it could be worse, and it was worse, so get over yourself.'''

She is set to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at an upcoming Arizona Diamondbacks game. Her goal is to come back next year and throw one while standing up.

"Will it happen?'' she said. "I hope so. I don't know. But the last year has still been awesome because I'm here, you know? I'll boot scoot down the beach. It doesn't matter. I'm here to do it, and I'm here to see the sunrise."

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