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Olympian Amy Van Dyken's spinal injury will likely leave her paralyzed, but self-sufficient

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Amy Van Dyken celebrates after winning a gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Van Dyken has a severed spine after an accident on her all-terrain vehicle in Arizona. (AP Photo/David Longstreath, File) (AP1996)

Swimmer and six-time Olympic gold medalist  Amy Van Dyken suffered a devastating spinal cord injury Friday, reportedly severing her spine during an ATV accident in Arizona.

After undergoing surgery, Van Dyken’s doctors have said she is in good condition – and on Tuesday the 46-year-old posted a picture on Instagram, showing herself sitting up for the first time since her accident. With her injury occurring at the T11 vertebrae, Van Dyken will likely suffer lower extremity paralysis, which may also affect her bladder and bowel function, according to Dr. Zach Gordon, an orthopedic/spine surgeon at UH Case Medical Center in Cleveland, who did not treat Van Dyken.

While experts surmise she will almost certainly be wheelchair bound, they say Van Dyken has every chance at going on to lead a full life post-injury.  

“If damage to the spinal cord is what we call ‘complete,’ then the prognosis is poor for recovery, but excellent for becoming totally self-sufficient in a wheelchair...” Dr. Kristjan T. Ragnarsson, professor and chairman of the department of rehabilitation medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, told FoxNews.com. “She has an excellent prospect of being generally healthy and living a good life.”

Ragnarsson was not involved in Van Dyken’s care.

Dave Denniston, a friend of Van Dyken’s, said the athlete will undergo weeks of therapy to rebuild strength and learn how to use a wheelchair. He speaks from experience: Denniston is a former NCAA college swimmer and Olympic hopeful who fractured his T10 vertebrae in a sledding accident in 2005.

“We’re both swimmers and traditionally have big arms and big shoulders, strong arms strong upper body, so learning to use that, that’s pretty easy and that transition takes a lot less time,” Denniston told FoxNews.com. “She has a lot going for her.”

Two years after his injury, Denniston went on to train for and compete in the Paralympics and now coaches other Paralympic swimmers. He said keeping a positive attitude is key to embracing life in a wheelchair – and he has no doubt Van Dyken will adjust and thrive.

“When you’re in that situation … you clearly see two different types of people: One is sitting in their room, feeling sorry, asking, ‘Why me?’ And they’ll get through it, but it won’t be pretty,” Denniston said. “And then there’s a much smaller group, and Amy falls in this category of, ‘All right, there are a lot of opportunities here, this is a different way than I planned on living my life, but I can make the most of this.’ Those are the ones who … tend to progress the furthest after the injury.”

Doctors say it could be a while before the full extent of Van Dyken’s injuries becomes apparent.

“In terms of long-term disability, it can take months -- if not a year or two -- before you know where final neurologic recovery is going to be,” Gordon said. “Certainly, we like to see if there’s any preserved sensation below the level of injury, if there’s any sensation around the bottom or genitals … or even better, if she has preserved sensation or flickers of motor activity in the legs, which means the injury is incomplete and has better potential for recovery than when there’s no preserved sensation.”

Van Dyken’s odds for regaining some degree of function will depend on whether her spine was, in fact, completely severed – which is rare – or simply suffered extreme bruising and damage, according to Ragnarsson.

Another Olympic hopeful who fell victim to a spinal cord injury was Chinese gymnast Sang Lan, who fractured her C6 and C7 vertebrae during the Goodwill Games in New York City in 1998. Lan underwent rehabilitation at The Mount Sinai Hospital after her injury, reportedly under the care of Ragnarsson.

Though Lan is now a paraplegic, and has little sensation in her hands or arms, she has gone on to develop a career as a television journalist in China. Lan is married and recently gave birth to a baby boy on April 14, 2014, according to China Daily.

“Athletes generally tend to be healthier than others,” Ragnarsson said. “They certainly have the experience to work hard towards achieving a goal.”

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