Colorado's Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen severed spine in ATV crash

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Colorado's Olympic gold-medal winning swimmer, Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, severed her spine in an ATV crash in Arizona, according to Swimming World Magazine.

She told emergency workers she could not move her toes or feel anything touching her legs after the accident on Friday.

A report by the Show Low Police Department said the ATV that Rouen was driving hit a curb in a restaurant parking lot and sent her over a drop-off between 5 to 7 feet.

Rouen was found lying on the ground next to the ATV. 

7NEWS talked to a woman who at a wedding rehearsal at a restaurant near where the accident happened. She said her husband, a firefighter and an off-duty emergency room doctor, treated Amy for about 15 minutes until emergency units arrived.

An online article quotes a statement from Van Dyken-Rouen's family as saying, "Amy's spinal cord was completely severed at the T11 vertebrae, but, miraculously, a broken vertebrae stopped within millimeters of rupturing her aorta, and she did not suffer any head trauma. Amy awoke within hours of surgery acting like her typical spunky, boisterous, ebullient self and has spent the last 24 hours entertaining her family and her medical staff in the ICU. She has made at least one male nurse blush."

The statement on Swimming World Magazine's website also said, "Amy has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles before, winning 6 Olympic gold medals and becoming one of the greatest female athletes of her generation despite battling lifelong chronic asthma. Now this is her new challenge, her new battle. With the unconditional love and support of her friends, family and fans, Amy welcomes the challenges she will face as she opens this new chapter of her life."

Van Dyken is married to former Denver Broncos punter Tom Rouen.

"Prayers for Amy Van Dyken. Just heard from her husband Tom Rouen and she is in life threatening condition after ATV accident," tweeted former Broncos kicker Jason Elam.

However, Van Dyken-Rouen appeared to be in good spirits. A tweet from her account Sunday said, "Never get us all together anymore. This is amazing. I have the best family."

She also posted a photo on Instagram of a drawing from her niece and nephew.

"They are so sweet. Made me smile. #hospitalsSuck," Van Dyken-Rouen tweeted.

On Monday, her family said Van Dyken-Rouen was in good condition at Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn Medical Center.

"For her to have really have fractured a T-11, it must have been a tremendous amount of force and energy," said Dr. Vikas V. Patel, a spine surgeon at University of Colorado Hospital.  "It's a huge amount of force required to, basically, take one half of the spine and go one direction and the other half go the other direction. Everything from that injury below will lose function."

Patel described the T-11 vertebrae as just above the lower back. He said if you put your hand to your back, the T-11 would be about where your thumb hits.

"To me, to have a fracture like this means that most likely there was so much force involved that the ATV was on top of her," said Patel. "When it comes to a spinal cord injury itself and severing the spinal cord, it means that the signals are not going to be able get through from the brain down to the legs."

"Is this person going to be paralyzed for the rest of their life? We can predict it just looking at the morphology, but we can't say for sure," said musculoskeletal radiologist MK Jesse.

She showed 7NEWS a CT scan and an MRI of a similar spinal injury and explained what she looks for to understand the severity of the injury.

"When will that get better? How will this person recover? It is a little bit of a person-to-person, case-to-case basis," said Jesse.

"We really won't know what's going to recover and how much it's going to recover," said Patel. "The spinal cord can continue to recover over two years' time before it really reaches that maximum recovery stage."

Rouen starred at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where she became the first U.S. female athlete to win four gold medals in a single games. She captured the 50-meter freestyle and 100 butterfly and also competed on the winning relay teams in the 400 free and 400 medley.

Four years later at Sydney, she added two more golds in the 400 free and 400 medley relays before retiring from competition.

"Being an athlete is huge. Knowing that she's overcome such adversities already and has the perseverance and the strength and the drive to be the athlete that she is, is going to be needed in her recovery," said Patel.

Van Dyken-Rouen and her husband moved to Arizona several years ago.

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