Growing up under the arid Las Vegas sun, all snowboarder Amy Purdy dreamed about was traveling the world in search of snow. But it wasn’t until a raging blood infection turned her into a double leg amputee that those dreams began coming true. Here, we talk with the uber inspiring multi-hyphenate Element Eden advocate about what it takes to get back up on your feet when life knocks you down.
What did your life look like before you got sick?
I was 15 when I gave snowboarding a try and right away I completely fell in love with it. I moved to Salt Lake the day after I graduated to become a massage therapist, a job that would let me travel and experience the world. At 19 I was making great money and helping people– I remember feeling that I was completely in control of my life. In one day all of that changed forever.
What do you remember from that day?
I woke up feeling fine and went to work. Three massages in and I felt exhausted and over the course of the next 45 minutes I realized I was getting sick, so I left early. Things progressed really quickly. I was laying in bed and at one point I drifted off to sleep when I heard this really demanding voice say, “Amy, get up. Get up and look in the mirror.” I scooted to the edge of the bed and when I stood, I couldn’t feel my feet. My hands and legs were purple and when I turned to the mirror my face was too. I couldn’t breathe and I realized I was dying. On the way to the hospital my lungs collapsed and by the time I got there they gave me less than two hours to live.
And you were diagnosed later with bacterial meningitis…
We’re in contact with it all the time and our immune systems fight it off, but for whatever reason 3,000 Americans will get sick from it every year and it’s incredibly fatal. Over the next two and a half months I lost my kidneys, my spleen, the hearing in my left ear, part of my left lung and both of my legs below the knee.
What were your first thoughts when you realized you’d lost your legs?
I really just wanted to get back into massage and snowboarding. Being 19 and having both legs amputated…I didn’t know how I’d do the things I loved.
What happened the first time you tried boarding again?
I got myself as healthy as I could even though I was only 83 pounds when I left the hospital. Seven months later I got back on a board, but I traumatized everyone on the chairlift. I was having a problem bending my prosthetic ankles and feeling like stickman. I hit a bump of snow and twisted right out of my legs! I fell in the snow but my legs, still attached to the board, went flying down the mountain.
Did that motivate you to start Adaptive Action Sports?
I thought, “Ok, so I need legs that are comfortable, I need ankles that bend.” I did a ton of research to find the resources I needed to get these legs but couldn’t find anything. So we made some Frankenstein feet with random parts that moved in a way that allowed me to snowboard again. In 2003 I met my boyfriend and we started brainstorming on how to fill this huge niche. There was support for disabled athlete in classic sports, but not for someone like myself. We fought to get adaptive skate, snowboarding and motocross into the X Games.
Have you continued competing yourself?
In 2011 I won my third world cup in Adaptive Snowboarding, so I’m the highest-ranking female adaptive snowboarder in the world. We’re pushing to get adaptive sports into the 2018 Olympics, so I’ll be there competing if that happens. Being a part of this moment is huge.
You told yourself you’d never be a victim. How have you stayed true to that?
I became an Element Eden advocate. I’ve gone to Africa with TOMS shoes to do a shoe drop and help kids in need. I was in a Madonna music video as a runway model with prosthetic legs. I modeled for Nikki Sixx where I had ice picks for legs! When I lost my legs I had no idea what my life would be like but I was inspired to create a good life for myself and continue to stay involved with the things I loved to do. Being creative and active has come full circle– everything has melded together and it’s been one crazy adventure.