How Paralympian Amy Purdy Turned Her Limitations Into Success

Updated 05/15/18
Julianne O’Neill

Amy Purdy has been snowboarding six hours a day for the last 12 days straight, she tells me when we speak over the phone in early February. It’s about a month before the 2018 Paralympic Games, which are set to take place in PyeongChang, South Korea, March 9 to 18, and she is poised to set up her training with her eyes on the gold. Her journey to becoming a successful professional double-leg amputee snowboarder has been long and arduous, but it’s one that has inspired millions of people to overcome their personal challenges, no matter how insurmountable they might seem.

Purdy grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she developed a love of snowboarding on the slopes of Lee Canyon and Brian Head, which are both just outside the city. Purdy didn’t pick up the action sport until the age of 15. She remembers standing on skis in Brian Head and being passed by a kid sliding down the mountain on a snowboard. “It looked so fun, and I thought, I don’t want to ski anymore—I want to snowboard.” She instantly fell in love with the sport and knew that she wanted to travel the world as a professional snowboarder, but competing wasn’t initially important to her.

“I didn’t really take it that seriously except I knew I was very passionate about it. What’s so crazy is now I’m doing everything I wanted to do—I just had to take this crazy detour to get here.

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The detour Purdy is referring to came in the form of meningococcal meningitis, a deadly infection that she contracted at age 19. Within 24 hours, she was in the hospital on life support with a 2% chance of surviving. “I was fighting for my life, and it really became this kind of life-or-death situation,” she says. At 19 years old, Purdy made the decision to have her legs amputated to live, knowing that it would change her life as she knew it. While she doesn’t sugarcoat the trauma of her experience, Purdy was able to find profound strength in her decision.

“In a way, it was somewhat empowering—just knowing that I made the choice to be here and also that I was going to use every bit of time that I have here to my fullest,” she explains. “I didn’t want to limit myself and I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself, so I kind of just forced myself to take on a more proactive perspective so that I could move forward and do the things that I love.”

Moving forward meant getting back on a snowboard. Purdy recalls first waking up from surgery: groggy and still coming to terms with the fact that her legs were gone. “I remember laying in the hospital bed and visualizing myself snowboarding again and visualizing it so strongly that I could feel my heart pumping out of my chest. I could feel the wind against my face. I actually felt like I was in the moment, and when I saw myself snowboarding again, I didn’t know how I was going to do it, I just knew I was going to do it again.

So that’s what I started to work toward.” Purdy attributes her ability to achieve her goals to her powerful visual thinking. While she was extremely weak and sick for quite some time after surviving surgery, she continued to visualize the life she knew she would have. “In my mind and in my heart, I had already made my mind up of what I was going to do, and I knew I was going to snowboard again somehow, I knew I was going to travel, and I also knew that I wanted to help other people,” she says.

Julianne O’Neill

It took time, perseverance, and an unshakeable belief that anything is possible, but Purdy learned to snowboard again. “I felt like Stickman because my ankles couldn’t move and things didn’t work the way that normal feet work, so it was very challenging,” she says of the first time she carved down a mountain after losing her legs. Despite feeling discouraged at times, she viewed her situation as a challenge, one that she was capable of overcoming. “I called ski schools across the country. I called all the prosthetic manufacturers, and ultimately, I ended up building a foot with my leg maker.”

Now, Purdy is snowboarding better than ever before and she’s helping others in her own way. She and now-husband Daniel Gale started Adaptive Action Sports, an organization that helps children, young adults, and veterans with permanent physical disabilities become involved in action sports like snowboarding, skateboarding, mountain biking, and paddleboarding, back in 2005. The two have been tremendously influential in advancing opportunities for adaptive athletes, bringing adaptive snowboarding to the ESPN Winter X Games and helping get the sport into the Paralympic Games.

“As I was able to help other people, of course, that helped me as well. It’s incredibly fulfilling to know that through the challenges I’ve gone through, I’ve been able to figure out solutions and now I can offer those solutions to others.”

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No stranger to motivating others, Purdy has cultivated the mantra: Live Inspired. It stems from something Purdy is told over and over again by fans. They tell her that she’s inspiring. “I am grateful that I can inspire other people,” she explains, “but really, I think a lot of that comes because I’m inspiring myself.” Instead of focusing on uplifting others, Purdy surrounds herself with those who encourage and excite her with their own passion and drive. “I think inspiration is contagious, so if you’re inspired, then those around you will be inspired as well.”

While she’s already spread her messages of courage and inspiration to millions thanks to her experiences as a cultural envoy, a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, and through her TED Talk, which has been viewed by more than 1.7 million people, Purdy still has plenty of advice to give others who are going through challenging times. “Nobody’s ever prepared,” she says, explaining that it takes time to gain a positive perspective on any circumstance life may through at you. “It’s okay to kind of feel bad for yourself for a little bit, but you can only sit there for so long,” she says.

“I’ve just kind of found through everything I’ve gone through that if you work hard enough and you’re passionate enough about something, then almost anything’s possible.”

Now the snowboarder is busy preparing for her second Paralympic Games. In 2014, she took home a bronze medal, and she’s ready to return for gold. The only female double-leg amputee competitive snowboarder, Purdy has to work harder than every other athlete, but that doesn’t phase her. “It’s definitely more challenging for me, but it motivates me to want to work as hard as I can.” Her strategy for mentally preparing for the Games is similar to the one thing that has helped her achieve every other goal in life: visualization.

“I really just try to get myself in the best mindset I can,” says Purdy. “I ride my best when I have fun, so if I can do all the hard work at home and have fun when I’m actually in the race, then I know I’m going to ride my best.”

Julianne O’Neill

No doubt the world will be watching as Purdy competes in the banked slalom and snowboard-cross events next week in PyeongChang. Tune in to NBC to catch all the action.

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