You might be surprised to learn that Amy Purdy, 38, the medal-winning Paralympic snowboarder, motivational speaker and New York Times best-selling author, often forgets that she’s missing her legs below the knee.
“Looking in the mirror and seeing I have prosthetic legs, it still hits me sometimes,” she said. “Going to the gym, sometimes I’ll walk around and think, ‘why are people looking at me?’ Then I realize I’ve got two prosthetic legs. I don’t think of myself as that different because I know that we all have differences. Some of them are just more visible than others.”
It’s no wonder Purdy and other like-minded athletes like figure skater Ashley Wagner and bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor were highly sought after by Team Bridgestone ahead of the 2018 Paralympics to help inspire people to chase their own dreams.
A Strong Breath, a Strong Mind
Purdy is coming off of a stellar performance in Pyeongchang, where she won a silver medal in snowboard cross and a bronze medal in banked slalom, bringing her total Paralympic medal count up to three since she lost her legs in a fight with meningitis at 19, which also led to a kidney transplant less than two years later.
Her first Paralympic medal came in Sochi after placing third in snowboard cross.
“After Sochi, I thought, ‘wow, I have four years to become as strong as possible, and be at the peak of performance,'” Purdy said.
However, life had different plans.
“I was training to go to the games in October of 2016, and I ended up jumping into this CrossFit class, and basically doing too many pull ups, which is easy to do when you’re in that exciting environment,” she explained. “I ended up injuring my arm severely with something called rhabdomyolysis, which breaks down your muscle cells.”
An eight day hospital stay followed by a full year of recovery really threw a wrench into her preparation for Pyeongchang. On top of that, she injured her arm again last summer.
“I had a nerve injury to my brachial plexus, and that was even harder to rehab,” she said. “I ended up spending most of the summer in doctors’ offices and MRI machines trying to figure out what was going on. It was very scary not knowing if I’d live a normal life again, let alone focusing on the Paralympics.”
Copious amounts of physical therapy allowed her to toe as many start lines as she could leading up to the Paralympics.
“As I was jumping into World Cups, I knew I wasn’t going to perform at my best, but I still wanted to work on competing as much as possible,” she said. “I just did the best I could with what I had.”
With each competition, she improved and regained a little more confidence to the point where she worked her way up to becoming the world’s second-ranked snowboarder in boarder cross and banked slalom. So, by the time the Paralympic Games rolled around, she was ready to lay it all out there.
“I wasn’t the youngest, and I wasn’t the strongest, but mentally, I felt like I was,” Purdy said.
To create that armored mindset, she worked with Team USA’s sports psychologist.
“We worked on sinking into a pocket of the performance where calmness runs the show,” she said. “So, we worked on breathing techniques. It’s one thing to breathe deeply, but it’s another thing to develop a specific breathing pattern. With the Paralympics, the camera’s in your face, there’s a crowd and the world’s watching, so I wanted to be prepared for that level of pressure, and I used the breathing techniques to slow my physiology down and put me 100 percent in the moment.”
At the time of this writing, Purdy is unsure whether she’ll compete at the next Paralympics four years from now.
“I’m still growing in the sport and it’s still very exciting for me,” she said. “I know if I work harder and I am at the peak of my performance, then I’ll get closer to that gold medal if I do compete.”
Ready, Set, Action
In addition to being a full-time athlete, Purdy is the co-founder of Adaptive Action Sports (AAS) with her husband, Daniel Gale. Together, they launched the non-profit organization in 2005 to give individuals with physical disabilities the opportunity to get involved in snowboarding and skateboarding.
“We’ve been able to do a lot with very little,” Purdy said of what she’s most proud of about AAS. “We helped get snowboarding into the Paralympic Games in the first place. When I first lost my legs, there wasn’t any kind of organized program for adaptive snowboarding in the U.S. There was one group in Canada and one group in the Netherlands. We all worked together to make it happen, and now it’s taken on a life of its own.”
From beginner snowboarders to the elite, Adaptive Action Sports caters to everyone. They had six athletes training with them full-time who made the U.S. Paralympic snowboard team.
“We’re the only program in the U.S. that’s created a pipeline in that matter, but the most fulfilling part is the individual lives we get to touch.”
For example, take 18-year-old Zach Miller, who has cerebral palsy. He began training with AAS at 14 because he wanted to learn how to snowboard. Today, he’s one of the top riders in the country, and he just so happens to live in Purdy and Gale’s basement.
“It’s great to see how much confidence he’s gained through the sport, and then bring that to the rest of his life,” Purdy said. “I have no doubt he’ll make the next Paralympic team.”
Helping Others Chase Dreams
As for balancing being a full-time athlete with giving back to the community in such a big way, Purdy says it’s a challenge, but beyond rewarding.
“Being a competitive athlete, it can be pretty selfish because you have to be,” she said. “You have to focus on how you eat, how you sleep and how you perform. You’re never home and you rarely see your family. You’re always analyzing your performances, so you’re putting a lot of focus on yourself. It’s hard to do that and also be a mentor. So, I’ve had to compartmentalize. When it’s time to focus on my training and recovery, then I do that. Now that the games are over, I’m able to turn around and through our organization, I’m able to mentor other athletes, like wounded veterans and kids who have disabilities. Helping others chase their dreams through adaptive actions sports, that’s especially fulfilling for me.”
And, it’s medal-worthy work, too.