Just 10 months after Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen was paralyzed from the waist down in an all-terrain vehicle accident, she tells PEOPLE, “I am out doing what I love again, feeling the wind in my hair.”
“People see me all over the streets of Scottsdale [Arizona],” says Van Dyken-Rouen, who is driving again but often opts to ride around town in a wheelchair that looks like a Vespa. “I’m out taking the dog on his long walks again. I’m going to Starbucks with my friends. Basically anything that I used to do, I’m doing.”
Now, the six-time gold medalist hopes to inspire others living with spinal cord injuries to do the same as the newly appointed captain of Team Reeve, the fundraising arm of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life of 6 million Americans living with paralysis, including 1.3 million with spinal cord injuries, while also searching for a cure.
“I want to spread the message that your life doesn’t have to end because you have a spinal cord injury,” she says. “You can still do things. If you want to participate in tennis or rock climbing, or whatever it is, you can still do that!”
The 42-year-old athlete, who is married to former Denver Broncos punter Tom Rouen, also hopes to convince others to support the work of the Reeve Foundation, whether that’s by running marathons, competing in different races or fundraising in other ways.
“What the Reeve Foundation is doing hopefully for the cure of paralysis is huge,” Van Dyken-Rouen says. “It is giving so many of us hope. They are definitely getting really close.”
Last October, the foundation, started by the late actor and activist Christopher Reeve, announced a huge breakthrough in the treatment of spinal cord injuries. Four young men who were told they would never be able to move again below their neck or chest are now able to stand and move their hips, legs and toes with the help of a new treatment called epidural stimulation.
The foundation hopes to offer the experimental treatment to 36 more men and women through a $15 million fundraising campaign called the Big Idea. Says Van Dyken-Rouen, “I’m so proud to be a part of it because it truly is going to change the world.”
Van Dyken-Rouen, who started her own foundation, AmyVanDyken.org, to help pay for medical equipment that isn’t covered by insurance, says that she also hopes to educate people about what it’s like to live with a spinal cord injury.
“I don’t want people to think that because they see me with a smile on my face and I’m laughing all the time that I don’t have hard moments, that this isn’t extremely difficult – it is!” she says. “Even right now, basically from my hips down I feel like I’m on fire. It can hurt so bad I feel like I’m being awoken in the middle of surgery.”
But, she adds, “I take those moments and I make it just that: a moment. I don’t make it an entire day.”
Watch an exclusive video of Van Dyken-Rouen below. And for more information about fundraising for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, visit TeamReeve.org.