Q&A: Snowboarder Amy Purdy on Losing her Legs and Becoming World Champion

Amy Purdy's traumatic illness led to the loss of both of her legs. Here's how she bounced back to become one of the premier Paralympic snowboarders in the world.
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At just 19-years-old, Amy Purdy's chances for survival looked slim. The snowboarder contracted Neisseria meningitis, affecting her circulatory system and causing a septic shock that gave Purdy only a 2% chance to live. Both of her legs were subsequently amputated below the knee and she lost both kidneys as well as her spleen. 

An avid snowboarder before the illness, Purdy built her own prosthetic leg and continued her athletic career despite the loss of her legs. She formed a non-profit organization, Adaptive Action Sports, to aid athletes with physical disabilities and campaign for the addition of snowboarding to the Paralympic Games, eventually succeeding in 2014. Purdy competed in the snowboard cross event in Sochi, finishing with a bronze medal. Aside from athletics, Purdy has appeared on 'The Amazing Race' and 'The Price is Right,' was featured on 'Dancing with the Stars' and has worked as an actress. Ahead of the 2018 PyeongChang Games, Purdy splits her time between motivational speaking and snowboarding.

SI caught up with Purdy to chat about her illness, motivations and future.

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed).

Nihal Kolur: Let's start before your illness. How did you first get into snowboarding?

Amy Purdy: I grew up in Las Vegas, which isn't really the best place for winter sports [laughs]. But there are ski resorts outside Vegas, so I learned to ski at a young age. I was never really good at it, though, so at 15 I started snowboarding. I immediately fell in love with it. I loved being outside, being with my friends and the environment of snowboarding – there's no rules, no right or wrong. It was something fun to do after school. 

NK: What about snowboarding appealed to you?

AP: I think it's just, there's no rules. It's not a team sport. there's no right or wrong. It's really just you and your board. When I first learned to snowboard, I would just go out with my friends and come up with little tricks, you know we would try to jump over a picnic table and just have fun being outside and there's a lot of self accomplishment in that. When you decide, 'I'm gonna learn how to do a 180 today' and you do it, you build a lot of confidence. And you have the freedom to just create new things. 

NK: Were you always interested in athletics?

AP: No, actually. Unlike most of my teammates, I wasn't raised an athlete. I was more of an artist. I loved painting and music. Snowboarding for me wasn't so much a sport as it was a lifestyle, it was kind of similar to skateboarding where it's just something you did every day. I didn't become an athlete until I was 30. That's when snowboarding got into the Paralympic Games and that's when I dedicated myself to be the best athlete I can be. I always tell people, you don't have to be raised an athlete – at any point you can decide to be as physically and mentally strong as you can be. For me that happened when I was 30. 

NK:Did you ever think about going to the Olympics when you were younger?

AP: Well at 19 I lost both of my legs to meningitis. Before that, my plan was to travel and snowboard. But when I contracted my illness, my life changed forever.

NK:What was that like for you mentally when that happened?

AP: You can never prepare yourself for that. I was healthy, I was a massage therapist at the time, in a healthy work environment. And then all of a sudden, I was fighting for my life at a hospital. I didn't just lose my legs below the knees to septic shock, but I also lost my kidney function and my spleen, so I was really fighting for my life for a couple months there.

NK:After all that, what made you continue to think about pursuing snowboarding?

AP: First of all, I was grateful to be alive. But I had to pretty much ask myself, 'What am I going to do with this? This is my situation, what can I do?' Snowboarding is what got me through my toughest days because I was so passionate about it that I didn't even think about walking again, I just thought about snowboarding. I set my goals high; I wanted to snowboard again. I didn't know I was going to compete again, but I just knew that I wanted to be out there on the snow with my friends. It was such a huge part of my life. By focusing on that, walking came fairly quickly and all of a sudden I was snowboarding again. It wasn't easy and I had to figure out a lot of different things. I had to make my own pair of feet by taking different pieces of other feet and putting them together so I could snowboard. The challenge of figuring things out is whats motivated me to get through some of my toughest times. I always felt there was a way. 


NK: How did you manage to build your leg? Do you have an engineering background?

AP: When it's your own body, you realize what you need. You can describe it every day to somebody and they wont get it unless they experience it themselves. So for me I would realize my ankles weren't flexing the way I needed to and I would take a piece of wood and put it under my heel and duct tape the wood there. I'd realize that gets me up over my toes a little. So it was a lot of feel and trial and error. Now, I use Mike Schultz's equipment, which is like the next generation for feet.

NK:Was there a point where everything just clicked, where you knew you wanted to go to the Paralympics?

AP: I started a nonprofit called Adaptive Action Sports. Through the organization we helped to get snowboarding in the Paralympic Games for first time in 2014. It was an evolution from losing my legs, relearning to snowboard, helping others learn to snowboard and finally getting it into the Games. And me wanting to compete and represent what's possible. Once snowboarding made it into the Paralympics, I dedicated 100% of my energy to making sure I was at the Games, making sure I was the best athlete I can be and making sure I would bring a medal home.

NK:And once you got to the Paralympics in 2014, was it everything you hoped for?

AP: It really is the journey. Just getting to the Olympic Village, was amazing. You're actually there, and then all of a sudden you're at the top of the race course and then you're at your last race. The whole journey of losing my legs, getting snowboarding into the Paralympics and actually being able to represent my sport and overcome my own challenges was amazing. It was emotional. But I couldn't allow it to make me emotional or that would break me down. I had to use it as power to be the best. 

NK:Did you realize the significance of it at the time?

AP: Definitely. I realized the significance of it but I tried to be in the moment and not think about the pressure that's on you or that you put on yourself. I did my best to enjoy my experience there and luckily I won a medal.

NK:Do you think you put more pressure on yourself than you get from the outside?

AP: Absolutely. With Bridgestone Tires, we're always talking about our clutch performance. And for me, whenever I've had that epic performance, it's when I can take that pressure and put it aside, be in the moment and do the best I can when pressure hits. That's how the Paralympics were for me. The pressure helps to prepare you but you have to be able to set it aside.

NK:A lot of our readers love to hear about the Olympic village. What was being surrounded by some of the best athletes in the world like?

AP: It's awesome, it adds to the excitement of everything. You get to connect with everyone there and they have everything in the village you could think of. They even have prosthetic shops, which is great, because you can get your legs worked on and fixed, which I needed to do quite a bit. That's what I love about the Olympic Games, the world can be separated in a lot of different ways with politics and everything but the Olympics represent unity. Everyone comes together, we're all there for the same reason and we just enjoy each other's company.

NK:And then you won a medal. 

AP: [laughs] Right.

NK:What about your acting and modeling career? It sounds like you've done some pretty cool stuff.

AP: I realize now looking back that I really like to perform because I get lost in the moment. So when it comes to acting, its similar to snowboarding, you have to perform, you can't be thinking about other things. Same with 'Dancing with the Stars.' I didn't realize how much snowboarding would transfer over to dancing but it was the same, performing under pressure. I also like being creative and snowboarding, dancing, acting; they're all creative. Any of the modeling stuff I've done has also been creative, not typical modeling. 

NK:And you're also a motivational speaker, right?

AP: Yeah, I got the opportunity to speak with Ted in 2011. That speech changed my life forever. It went viral and launched me into a speaking career. And believe it or not, snowboarding and speaking are similar. So I was speaking at high schools and then got invited to talk at Ted, which was a huge step up. Now, when I'm not traveling the world snowboarding I'm traveling the world speaking.

NK: So now that you've kind of done a bunch of things and experienced different fields, do you have any advice for your fans?

AP: I just think that if you're passionate and you persevere through your challenges, the possibilities are endless. The biggest thing I can say is, don't let circumstances stop you. There's always going to be something preventing you from your goal, whether its a loss of legs or anything else, but you'll never be happy if you surrender to the circumstances.