Van Dyken wears golds, fame well

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Amy Van Dyken can feel her newfound fame. She can see it in the wide eyes of the star-struck, and by the paralysis of shy strangers, their feet frozen in fear.

''It's very weird for me,'' Van Dyken said Monday. ''The thing I've noticed is people just kind of stare. People shouldn't be afraid to come up and talk to me. I'm just Amy. Let's have lunch.''

Upon winning four gold medals at the Summer Olympics, the U.S. swimmer has become a museum piece. Fundamentally, she is unchanged, but people tend to look at her now as if she belonged behind protective glass.

En route to a news conference Monday afternoon, Van Dyken became aware of people running alongside the car, fighting traffic for a fleeting photo opportunity.

World-class athletes spend a lifetime learning how to become household names, but their formal training tends to focus almost exclusively on competition. Amy Van Dyken had the foresight to start practicing her autograph when she was 13 years old, yet even this time was not exceedingly well-spent.

''I won my first blue ribbon,'' she said, ''and I thought I was destined for greatness. I started signing autographs right then and there. I was trying to make it as fu-fu and frilly as I could, but now it's kind of signed really quick, kind of like a doctor's signature, to see how messy it could get.''

A cult of personality . . .

If penmanship suffers in inverse proportion to the demand for an athlete's autograph, Amy Van Dyken's signature may soon be an indecipherable scrawl. She is the first U.S. woman ever to win four gold medals at a single Olympic Games - summer or winter - and also owns the personality to make it pay.

She is more bubbly than the plucky gymnast Kerri Strug and more self-effacing than the gallant sprinter Gail Devers. When she won the 50-meter freestyle Friday night, her fourth gold medal, Van Dyken called it ''a victory for all the nerds out there.''

It was an inspired statement. Nerds buy a lot of breakfast cereal and computers and plastic pocket protectors but are often neglected as a target audience. Amy Van Dyken speaks to the geeks as few prominent athletes ever have - as an equal.

''I've been walking down the street and people have stopped me and said: 'Hey, Amy, I was a nerd, too,' '' she said. ''It seems very weird to me that I'm the one to do this (win four gold medals). But if I can do it, anybody can do it. If you love something and it's true to your heart, stay with it. Follow your dreams and follow your heart.''

. . . and an unlikely champion

She did not start swimming to expand her trophy collection, but rather her lung capacity. Van Dyken is asthmatic and must still take medication four times a day.

''My asthma bothers me every day of my life. I wheeze all the time. If you listen to me really closely, you can hear it a little bit. I take medication four times a day every day of my life, Sundays included . . .

''Growing up as a kid, I couldn't go on a field trip. I couldn't go to a friend's house for the night, because they might have a pet. I told my mom when I was six years old that I wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to walk up and down the steps like everyone else.''

When she first plunged into the pool, six-year-old Amy Van Dyken could not complete a 25-meter lap without stopping to catch her breath. Now, because she swims so well, she risks being suffocated by her fans.

Van Dyken attended an Olympic sponsors party Sunday night and spent the first hour behind the crush of her new admirers. She was hugged last week by former President Jimmy Carter and has scheduled a congratulatory phone call from President Clinton.

''I came in here and people thought I would get a bronze medal at best,'' she said. ''I thought it would be great to walk around with an Olympic medal. It just happened to turn out for the best for me. I was thrilled to pass my expectations and just blow them away.''

Fame is an acquired taste, but Amy Van Dyken is willing to try it.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 30, 1996.