(KFYI News) – A six-time Olympic gold medalist who was paralyzed in an ATV crash near Show Low earlier this month has temporarily relocated from the Valley to a rehab hospital in Denver that specializes in spinal injuries.
Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, 41, was upbeat Wednesday as she talked to reporters at Scottsdale Airport before being loaded onto an air ambulance for the flight to Denver's Craig Hospital.
Van Dyken severed her spine after the ATV she was driving went over a curb and flipped, falling down a six-foot dropoff.
"I'm excited to get to this new part of my life," she said. "It's almost like a re-birth. I get to learn how to do everything all over again, and I'm anxious to do that."
Van Dyken has been continually tweeting positive messages from Scottsdale Osborn hospital, where she underwent a six-hour reconstructive surgery on her spine. Part of the reason for that is that she survived, something that was in doubt after her husband found her face-down after the accident.
"We said our goodbyes," she told reporters, "and to do that and then to be here now and to be with him is the most amazing thing."
"Yes this injury sucks, and yes, things hurt," Van Dyken added, becoming emotional. "But I'm alive, and I'm so thankful to be alive. And that's why I'm able to be so positive about it."
She said she's still paralyzed below her hips, and doctors don't know whether she'll ever recover functionality in her legs. But neurosurgeon Dr. Luis Manuel Tumialan, says if anyone can, Van Dyken can.
"There are so many things playing in Amy's favor," he said. "The fact that she's a world-class athlete. The fact that she has taken such remarkable care of her body."
"For the past 13 days, she has literally walked through hell with a smile on her face, the likes of which I've never seen," he added, noting that her surgery scar, which is only a week old, looks like the scar most people would have a month after surgery. That's how quickly she's recovering.
Van Dyken says she's looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead, and will do it her way.
"I'm gonna get the best wheelchair ever; I am going to make it so cool," she said. "I'm going to put skulls and crossbones on it because that's my thing, and make it purple. I'm going to do my hair to match my chair, and I'm gonna rock it out."
She mentioned that when she woke up, her father was in her hospital room. "My dad had AML Leukemia, so he's got neuropathy. He has no feeling from the knee down, so he's not supposed to be walking, although he tries. He's supposed to be in a wheelchair, and I guess my first words to my dad were, 'Hey dad, now we can have wheelchair races.' So maybe it will help him as well. It's just with everything that's going on, I have to look at as a positive."
Van Dyken won four Olympic gold medals in swimming in the 1996 Olympics, and won two more golds in 2000 before retiring from competition. She has lived in the Valley for several years, and worked as the sidekick on a couple of local radio morning shows.
PHOTO: Van Dyken and her surgeon listen to a reporter's question before her flight to Denver.