BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) Amy Van Dyken pushed herself across one of Berkeley's busy streets in her wheelchair and up a ramp into her special broadcast booth overlooking the pool deck, beaming the whole way.
The six-time Olympic gold medal swimmer returned to work with the Pac-12 Networks on Friday, nearly eight months after an all-terrain vehicle accident left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Van Dyken flew into the Bay Area from Arizona to call the USC-California women's swim meet, and she figured it was a perfect return given there would be about a dozen potential Olympians - including Missy Franklin - in the pool on a picture-perfect day.
Van Dyken is thrilled people are getting to know her in a far different way than the ultra-competitive person she was as an elite swimmer who became one of the best in the world despite her asthma.
''A lot of people didn't get to see that, they got to see the staring the competitor down, the slapping, the grunting, the spitting,'' she said. ''So they thought that I was a grumpy grumperson. I love that the world gets to see the real me now. That's really cool to me. Being the Olympian and the gold medalist helps me get through therapy every day, because there are days that I don't want to do it. I want to just go home and cuddle with my dog.
''I'm going for more than a gold medal right now. I'm going to get my life back. So, suck it up buttercup and get it done.''
Her triumphant return Friday was a huge step toward that, ''getting back to normalcy.'' She has long hoped to impact one person. Now, she knows the numbers who might find inspiration in her story are in the thousands or millions.
''She was a champion in swimming,'' Pac-12 Networks President Lydia Murphy-Stephans said. ''This redefines champion.''
From the second she came out of surgery last June, Van Dyken planned for this day. It was about two months ago when she began calling her agent again. She was ready.
''Listen, I knew that I wasn't ever going to walk again, that was pretty much a given. And I knew all the things that come with being a paraplegic, I got that,'' she said. ''But I knew it wasn't going to change me as a person, especially if I'm doing my broadcasting. The fact that I can sit here, the paraplegia does not affect my brain or my mouth. This job is perfect.''
Once Van Dyken said her hellos and got settled, she went to work writing lineups and prepping. She repeatedly clicked a pen with her right thumb, inquiring about the lane configurations and other meet details.
While visiting with the producer and director for the broadcast, Van Dyken was as upbeat as ever.
''Really good to be back,'' said Van Dyken, wearing a navy Pac-12 Networks polo with black leggings. ''I love my setup. Thank you guys so much. Awesome, love it - love it!''
Van Dyken had a flight home to Phoenix scheduled later Friday. She knows that's an exhausting day for an able-bodied person.
''For a paralyzed person, it's really tough, but you know what, I'm going to rock it out,'' she said. ''That's getting my life back.''
Van Dyken, who turns 42 on Feb. 15, severed her spine last June in a crash when she and husband, Tom Rouen, who was on his motorcycle, were on their way to dinner. When he found her, she wasn't breathing, and it took four minutes before she did. Leading up to surgery, they were told to prepare for the worst, because a vertebra was right up against her aorta and with one slip she could be gone.
''Her attitude has just never wavered through this whole thing,'' Rouen, a former NFL punter, said. ''She's really done it with a smile on her face every single day. ... You want to feel normal. This goes a long way toward that.''
Van Dyken reminds herself to cherish how far she has come after surviving such a frightening ordeal.
''Here's the thing, I look at it and I say, `I almost died,''' she said. ''I would hate for my last day to be remembered as a sour puss. I look at it now and say, `You don't know what's around the corner, don't be a sour puss.'... I never had an `Oh, poor me moment,' I never had a `What if?' I never had a `shoulda, coulda, woulda.' I got into this accident. That's what happened. Take what you're dealt, learn from it, and then move on.''