SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Not long after Amy Van Dyken-Rouen had surgery for a life-threatening spine injury, while she still wasn’t completely out of danger, her husband placed a cellphone in her hands.
The decorated Olympic swimmer had always enjoyed sharing her life and thoughts on social media, so Tom Rouen figured it might do her some good when she awoke.
It worked more than he could have imagined, providing Amy a therapeutic tool as she makes the transition from elite athlete to possibly spending the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
“She sends stuff out there and gets so much positive energy and positive feedback that I really think it helps her a whole lot,” said Rouen, a former punter for the Denver Broncos. “It’s also been good to be able to have a distraction with everything that’s going on.”
Before the advent of social media, information on athletes had to be disseminated: Through agents, teams or hospital representatives, interviews with the media, carefully worded statements by teams of publicists.
Now, athletes provide updates freely and instantaneously with a few keystrokes on their phones or computers.
Social media have become a conduit of information in an area that was once taboo: Athletes’ health.
Most of the posts are superficial.
Van Dyken-Rouen seems to have taken it to a new, open-book level.
The six-time Olympic gold medalist was involved in an all-terrain vehicle accident on June 6, severing her spine and leaving her with no feeling in her legs.
A day after surgery, Van Dyken-Rouen posted photos on Instagram of her family in the hospital room and a drawing from her niece and nephew.
The next day, she posted a selfie in her hospital bed and later put up a shot of her sitting up for the first time. She even posted images of her X-rays; one showing her dislocated vertebrae, another of the pins and rods holding her spine together after surgery.
Van Dyken-Rouen continued to be active on social media throughout her stay in intensive care and after she moved to a Colorado hospital to continue rehab.
“She’s doing it in such a positive and upbeat way, it’s almost breathtaking how inspiring it is,” said William Ward, professor of social media at Newhouse School at Syracuse University.