Van Dyken is like a fish out of water |

Van Dyken is like a fish out of water

Jared Green
Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily Tribune Olympic swimming gold medalist Amy Van Dyken exits the practice putting green with a smile Thursday at Edgewood.

STATELINE – Amy Van Dyken doesn’t have to be here. As she practiced her putting at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course under a perfect Lake Tahoe sky on Thursday, many of her old friends were in a Long Beach pool, trying to make the U.S. Olympic swimming team.

At 31 years old, Van Dyken is the same age as Jenny Thompson, who this week qualified for two events in Athens. Had she not retired after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the six-time gold medalist could be alongside her good friend in Long Beach, gliding through the water in search of fame and glory.

But while retirement is supposed to be relaxing, Van Dyken finds herself this weekend in a setting that is fun and nerve-racking. She’s one of only three women in the field at the American Century Championship and she probably has the least golf experience of any player in the tournament.

“When I’m swimming, at least I know what I’m doing,” she said. “There’s no hand-eye coordination in swimming. I’m mainly hoping not to embarrass myself.”

Van Dyken said she has been playing golf regularly for only a year, and she plans to take advantage of the women’s tees this weekend.

“I’m going up as far as I can go,” she said. “I’ll just start walking and wherever they stop me is where I’ll tee off.”

Van Dyken may be the least assuming celebrity on the planet and most assuredly on the Edgewood fairways. The self-described “nerd” admits she accepted the invitation to play this weekend for the chance to meet famous people. She didn’t hesitate to sign autographs for fans during practice, engaging them in conversation across the yellow rope with a constant grin and sounding like a fan herself when asked who she was hoping to meet.

“I’d really like to meet Donald Trump. He’s great,” she said. “Michael Jordan, too. He’s the epitome of what sports are all about. Those guys are bigger than life. Annika Sorenstam is awesome, too. What she’s done for golf is amazing.”

But with her tattoo of the Olympic rings on her left ankle peeking above her sock, it was impossible to forget that she was the first American woman to win four swimming golds in one Olympics. Having one’s face on a Wheaties box and in “Got Milk?” ads will have that effect.

Van Dyken started swimming as a 6-year-old as a way to battle her severe asthma and she didn’t complete her first lap in an Olympic-sized pool until she was 13. She became a state champion in high school, however, and was named the NCAA Swimmer of the Year in 1994 after winning the 50-yard freestyle title at Colorado State.

She went on to win the 400 medley relay, the 400 freestyle relay, the 100 butterfly and the 50 freestyle in Atlanta and two relay golds in Sydney. She announced her retirement soon after the 2000 games and has since been working in television and training for triathlons.

“My last race was the last race in 2000,” she said. “I haven’t even thought about coming back. I’m having too much fun doing other stuff.”

Van Dyken will tee off on Friday with Kevin Nealon and Digger Phelps. While she’s probably a more recognizable figure than the former Saturday Night Live star or the basketball analyst, Van Dyken doesn’t see herself that way.

“It’s so cool being here with all these famous people,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like I should be out here with them. But giddyap, let’s go.”

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