Silence erupted to thundering roars as Amy Van Dyken leapt off the blocks, shooting one final glare to the world record holder from China. As she propelled full force into lane five, she knew she had secured her fourth Olympic Gold Medal.
“At that moment, I knew I won,” said the former CSU star swimmer turned Olympian. “We didn’t even have to race.”
The most anticipated swimming race of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games had just begun, and while Van Dyken knew victory was hers, all eyes were focused on the contest between lanes five and four, where Le Jingyi, the swimmer she had to beat, swam neck and neck in the final 15-meter stretch.
Gritting her teeth, Van Dyken focused on the black line beneath her and muttered with each stroke, “Go! Go! Go! Go!” and finally, “Dive! Dive! Just get it.”
Touching the wall, Van Dyken shot out of the water and saw she won.
Three one-hundredths of a second separated gold from silver in the 50 meter freestyle, making Van Dyken the first U.S. woman to win four gold medals in a single Olympic Games.
As the crowd cheered, Van Dyken was oblivious to the record she’d just broken. At the time, that single win was all that mattered, and after the win she made sure Jingyi knew it.
“I kind of got up on the lane line and kind of looked at her and just went ‘Hah!” Van Dyken said. “I didn’t point at her. I didn’t call her a name. I was just so happy and I didn’t know what to do.”
Still in shock of the victory she’d envisioned since losing to China in the 1994 World Championships, an overwhelmed Van Dyken found out from TV reporters that her victory just made Olympic history.
“Shut up!” she said to reporters, as her reaction was broadcast live on millions of TVs across the nation and world.
Last week an announcement introducing her to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame will forever enshrine Van Dyken’s defiant swimming career.
Against the odds
Since the age of six, Van Dyken experienced people constantly telling her she couldn’t swim, which at the time, she said, was true.
“I was terrible,” I was that kid that you look at and ask, ‘Why are the parents making her do this?'”
Diagnosed with all three types of asthma and an allergy to chlorine, Van Dyken didn’t let the skeptics take away from what she knew she was capable of accomplishing. Van Dyken loved to swim and persevered to prove she could.
Despite six years without finishing a length of the pool Van Dyken kept swimming, and at the age of 12, she finally finished her first length.
A year later, she won her first race.
It was summer league, and 13-year-old Van Dyken stood next to her competitor before the 50-meter freestyle and tried a new approach to winning. The race was about to begin, and Van Dyken decided to imitate what she once saw an Olympian do — she spat in the lane next to hers.
“I was like, well, the Olympians are doing it, I should do it, so I spat, and the girl looked at me like ‘Oh my gosh. You’re crazy,’ and I beat her,” she said.
In 2000 that same spitting tactic she used during the Olympic prelims became the subject of international criticism.
Blue ribbon in hand and not afraid to show it, Van Dyken developed a new strategy for winning races.
What she lacked physically she started to make up for mentally, and a decade later she used her mental intensity at the 1996 Olympics to rebound from a humiliating collapse on the pool deck after the 100-meter freestyle.
Van Dyken didn’t let her first race in the Olympics affect her and went on to complete the fastest split in one of two relays and beat two world record holders, one in the 100 butterfly, the other in the 50 freestyle
Although Van Dyken finished with the gold medals in some record times, the road to the gold was long, and her teammates at Cherry Creek High School gave her the greatest test for her mental will power.
“On my high school swim team, the girls all laughed at me and said they didn’t want to swim with me; that was my freshman year,” she said. “When I started beating them, it got way worse.”
Winning for Van Dyken often meant harassment from her teammates, and she recalled several occasions when the cruel treatment sent her home in tears.
Finding her swimsuits cut down from the lock on her locker, her clothes thrown in the pool, a used tampon on her locker, Van Dyken had to endure or quit.
“I would come home, and I would just cry,” Van Dyken said. “I was like ‘What have I done? I’ve done nothing to any of these girls.
“I remember after state . I walked in and I just fell down on the floor and just started balling,” she said. “I was so relieved it was over.”
Swimming at CSU
After missing the 1992 Olympics by one/one-hundredth of a second and nearly quitting the sport in 1993, Van Dyken said it was transferring to CSU that gave her the support she needed to win an NCAA Championship and eventually six Olympic gold medals.
Van Dyken transferred to CSU in 1993 after a disappointing swim season at the University of Arizona.
“I left. I was done swimming,” she said. “I was over it, so I went to CSU because I wanted to be a teacher.”
Today Van Dyken says that decision and CSU swimming coach, John Mattos, were the steppingstones that brought her back to swimming and resulted in six gold medals, an Olympic Hall of Fame induction and a number of other championships that she won along the way.
“(Mattos) really did change my life,” Van Dyken said. “I mean without him I wouldn’t have been swimming anymore. I would’ve called it a day . I would be teaching.”
A phone call from Mattos kept her in the pool and swimming at a new level.
“Early October, she pushed off a 50 and went a time that would’ve won the conference championships the year before,” Mattos said. “That’s when I knew I had something real special on my hands.”
In December, Van Dyken became the No. 1 sprint freestyle swimmer in the nation, and she started to feel the pressure.
Mattos remembers one afternoon before practice when Van Dyken came to him in fear of being the one pursued.
Mattos said he helped build her confidence and narrow her focus to beat Jenny Thompson of Stanford in the NCAA Championships. From there, Mattos said, Van Dyken led the way.
The NCAA Championships came, and Van Dyken stood next to Thompson. Thompson later won eight Olympic gold medals and competed with Van Dyken in the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics. Mattos said the race that ensued and Van Dyken’s sprinting finish is still something talked about today by college coaches.
“(Van Dyken) just went into a whole different gear and just shot into the wall like she was slung from a slingshot and finished,” Mattos said. “When she turned, I will never forget her expression . when she saw her time and knew she had set an American record, a U.S. Open record, was only the second swimmer ever to go under 22 seconds.”
Two years later, Van Dyken delivered gold medal performances in four events. Mattos said during the big races, Van Dyken went into her zone, and that’s where she came out with the most surprising victories.
“When Amy jumped on the blocks, she had the uncanny ability to block everything else out,” Mattos said. “She didn’t care who the heck was next to her . she didn’t care about anything. All she was concerned about was getting her hand on the wall before anybody else in that race.
“That’s how she beat Le Jingye at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta on that 50. It was that ability to know I’ve got this girl; I’ve got this race; I’m going to beat her,” Mattos said.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Mattos, upon Van Dyken’s request, coached her one last time and helped Van Dyken add two more gold medals to an already infamous career.
Life since the gold
Still on the scene and supporting the CSU swim team, Van Dyken said she would consider coming back to CSU to help coach the swim team and possibly earn a degree.
She said she is taking the time she has now to make up for all the fun she missed training for the Olympics. Now sponsored by Nike, she said she has taken up golf and is trying to take back her days of youth.
“I’m kind of living my college life, which is not cool when you’re 35 and doing keg stands,” she said. “I’m having the best time. I have some great friends, a great family.”
Van Dyken said she was almost denied access to a frat party because she wasn’t on the list. When she was about to leave the party, a few students realized who she was, and Van Dyken said she had a great time.
Van Dyken has not forgotten her roots at CSU, and she has not let her celebrity stature keep her from having a good time.
Whether it is to give Michael Phelps some advice after an Olympic race or to give a fan swimming pointers during a Collegian interview, Van Dyken remains grounded in her past and said she is proud to be a CSU Ram.
Senior Reporter Kaeli West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.