Amy Van Dyken is a four time gold medal winning Olympic swimmer. She is also the only American woman to accomplish this.
Amy van Dyken doesn't exactly bring to mind the grace of past swimming champions like Summer Sanders or Janet Evans. Before her races, she spits, growls, stares, and splashes. She freely admits that she's out to scare her opponents, to beat them mentally before leaving them to flounder in her wake. Ask her to describe herself and she'll use words like mean and stubborn.
She's had to be, to overcome childhood asthma and early struggles in the sport. "People told me when I was growing up, 'Oh Amy, you can't do that.' So I went out there and showed them I can." This despite breathing difficulties that limit her to about 65% of normal lung capacity.
Among U.S. female Olympians, speed skater Bonnie Blair has the most gold medals ever with five. Only Janet Evans, Pat McCormick and Evelyn Ashford have as many gold medals as van Dyken -four- in a career. But Evans and McCormick needed to games each to reach that total, and Ashford did it over three. Before van Dyken, no American woman had ever won four golds in a single games.
After she won her fourth and final gold in Friday's 50 meter freestyle, van Dyken said that her victory was for "all the nerds out there." As a freckle-faced teenager, she had already attained her current height of 5' 11", but was not vet a gold medal caliber swimmer. In fact, several of her high school teammates refused to swim with her on relays, "because I was so bad." She said before the games that one of the highlights of her current success is running into thosed ex-teammates at the local mall and saying "So, I'm swimming in five events at the Olympics. What are you up to?"
By the end of her high school career, van Dyken had improved enough to earn attention as a potential star swimmer at the NCAA level. She enjoyed early success at the University of Arizona, but a sever case of Mononucleosis led her to quit the sport for a time in the summer of 1993. "I was sick all the time," she said. "I couldn't swim, and my training was terrible I decided, 'this is too hard.'" After a few months, her health improved, and her desire to compete returned. "I took the summer off and realized I loved the sport. And how much I missed it. Andhow greasy my hair got when I wasn't in the pool twice a day."
After a 1994 transfer from Arizona to Colorado State, van Dyken was named female NCAA swimmer of the year. She also joined the U.S. National Resident Team in Colorado Springs, trained under celebrated coach Jonty Skinner. Teammates included Mark Henderson and Tripp Schwenk, both medalists in Atlanta. During 1995, she enjoyed major tournament victories in the 50 M freestyle and the 100 M butterfly, her two gold medal events in Atlanta.
Somerwhere along the way, she also began to look for ways to psyche out her opponents; hence, the claps, the growls, spitting, and stares that have become a key part in the van Dyken pre-race ritual. "I stare down every competitor that I have who I know is a threat. In Atlanta, that included Le Jingyi, the 50 M world record holder who was van Dyken's chief rival in that race. "She was a threat because she was seeded ahead of me, and she was tough in the 100." But it was van Dyken's speed, not her stares, that gave her the victory in the American record time of 24.87, a hair thin .03 faster than Le.
Van Dyken also helped power the U.S. relay teams to victory in the 4x100 M freestyle and the 4x100 meter medley relay. "It is always better to win with a relay than it probably is by yourself," she said after swimming the fastest split in the freestyle relay as 53.9 seconds. For her teammates, van Dyken provides a lot more than fast swims; she's one of the loudest voices cheering on the other swimmers, and at age 23 is one of the veterans on a team that includes teenagers like Amanda Beard, Beth Botsford, and Brooke Bennett.
Few pointed to van Dyken as the U.S. swimmer to watch before the opening of the games. Evans was seeking her record tying fifthe gold medal, and fresh faces Beard and Bennett were considered strong medal contenders as well. The Englewood, Colorado native was expected to challenge in the freestyle events, but was not favored in against the strong Chinese sprinters lead by Le Jingyi. In her first race of the games, the 100 M freestyle, van Dyken finished just off the medal stand in fourth place, then collapsed with leg cramps and breathing difficulties on the pool deck. "I was kind of embarrassed about it," she told NBC's Bob Costas six days and four gold medals later. "Your camera was right there."
That sort of humor has endeared van Dyken to journalists, one of whom called her "the interview of the year" following her last post victory press conference. After her string of Olympic wins, she'll get to meet more media types; when asked about how her life would change, Amy replied, "I do know that I get to go on a couple of TV shows, which is awesome. I'll have to learn how to do my hair and my makeup."
Following the games, van Dyken hopes to join Evans as an ambassador for swimming, "to get people to watch it more than once a week every four years." Eventually, she might start a career in teaching; it's not hard to see awkward high schoolers welcoming her as one of their own who made good. "For all the kids out there who are struggling, and to their peers who say they're terrible, I hope I am an inspiration to them. If they love it and just keep plugging away at it, something good will come out of it."