By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Olympic champion swimmer Amy Van Dyken, who was paralyzed from the waist down after severing her spinal cord in an all-terrain vehicle crash in June, was discharged from a Colorado rehabilitation facility on Thursday.
Speaking to reporters from a wheelchair, the six-time Olympic gold medalist said she feels “a thousand percent better” than when she entered the center two months ago on a stretcher.
“I'm going to ride bikes, I'm going to mountain climb, and I'm going to rock climb. I want to do everything," she said, describing herself as a “proud paraplegic.”
Beyond returning to a life outside a hospital setting, Van Dyken vowed to raise awareness about the need for more research into spinal cord injuries.
“I would love to see a cure for this in my lifetime,” she said.
The 41-year-old Colorado native was paralyzed June 6 when the ATV she was driving crashed near her Arizona home.
After undergoing surgery there to stabilize her spine, Van Dyken was transferred to Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in suburban Denver, a facility that specializes in spinal cord and brain injuries.
Patients there undergo an intense physical therapy regimen to learn how to live independently.
Known as a fierce competitor, Van Dyken won six gold medals at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and the 2000 Games in Sydney, winning in relay races, the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly.
She has been very active on social media during her stay at Craig, frequently posting photographs and tweeting about her progress.
During her stay at Craig, Van Dyken appeared upbeat as she was seen swimming in a therapeutic pool and kayaking with other patients at a local reservoir. But she was also frank about the struggles she faced, emotionally and physically, in learning how to function as a paraplegic.
“There have been a lot of tears shed for sure,” she said.
Van Dyken teared up briefly during the news conference as he talked about the other patients she met, particularly quadriplegics, who have to live without the use of their arms.
“They have changed the way I think about the world,” she said. “They are the strongest people I know.”
Van Dyken and her husband, former Denver Broncos punter Tom Rouen, will return to their Arizona home in September, but she will be back to Colorado periodically for outpatient follow-up therapy.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Eric Beech)