Good Grit: How an Olympic Athlete Embraced Hardship to Persevere

Optimism isn’t just about looking past an obstacle to find the bright side, or ignoring the rain cloud for the silver lining. Sometimes, it means tackling your obstacles head-on and embracing the hard road ahead, knowing that the obstacle is an opportunity to become stronger.

By: Nia Howard

Amy Van Dyken realized this from a very early age. As a now six-time Olympic gold medalist, you might think swimming just came easy for Amy. But plot twist: Amy had to deal with not only a severe case of childhood asthma, but also an equally challenging allergy to chlorine. “It made breathing so difficult,” says Amy, “There were days I felt I needed to stop swimming for my health and I wondered if it was worth it…but when I got back in the pool to train, I knew it was worth it. Swimming was my passion, my love.”

Though she knew it would be anything but easy, Amy relied on her grit and resiliency—something she’d developed from her experience with critical asthma—to push through training and win her six gold medals at the 1996 and 200 Summer Olympics. She became the first American woman to win four gold medals in a single Olympics. Talk about an opportunity (or six) on the other side of an obstacle.

But the thing about life is that the challenges don’t stop coming just because you conquer one of them. And in 2014, Amy found herself in the midst of another life-altering roadblock: a terrible accident that left her spinal cord severed. Amy was paralyzed, and the prognosis didn’t look good.

“My first thought was that I may not see my husband, Tom, again. That was really difficult,” Amy notes. But once she made it through surgery, and they knew she was going to live, she was determined to put all her energy towards recovery. “I became an athlete again, mentally. It was how I’d always lived my life, and this challenge wasn’t going to change that.”

Through her grueling recovery and learning how to adjust to her paralysis, Amy drew upon the perseverance she’d cultivated earlier in life as well as her husband, friends, and family for support. Still, every day was a struggle. “I have no feeling or control of my body from the belly button down, so I felt like a child again—needing help to get dressed, moving positions in bed. Everything I was able to do before became a challenge.”

In the midst of all this, Amy still found another opportunity to become stronger. The opportunity? Learning how to care for herself.

“I became really excited to be independent again. I took every day as a new challenge, and I would push myself as if I were training for the Olympics. Except this time, I wasn’t fighting for a gold medal…I was fighting to get my life back.”

Six years after her accident, Amy has learned to navigate her paralysis, but she recognizes that the journey is still a daily struggle. But through this life-altering obstacle, Amy found another opportunity and another passion: changing the world for the disabled community through her foundation. “I started my foundation, Amy’s Army, while still in the hospital. Becoming paralyzed can cost upwards of $1 million the first year, and I thought, ‘if I can help the disabled community in any way, I will.’ I want to help make the world a place where we can thrive, not just try to survive.”

And maybe that’s the secret to Amy’s grit and resiliency. It’s not about ignoring the situation or feeling sorry for yourself. It’s about knowing that something good can come when you fight through the hardship. “You have to push yourself…You have to help yourself and do all you can to live a full and meaningful life. And you can most definitely do that.”

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