Amy Purdy: A bionic fembot’s road to Sochi
March 3, 2014
A different road
The level of dedication, competitiveness and drive that it takes to be an Olympian is something that few people possess, and to become a Paralympian takes an added dose of courage and patience.
For the 2014 events that begin in Sochi, Russia, on Friday, March 7, Paralympians will use different training centers and coaches, wear different uniforms and have less access to some of the high-dollar, top-of-the-line equipment and resources that able-bodied athletes are granted.
“Able-bodied riders think about their boards, boots and bindings, and I have a massive layer of tweaking before that even becomes important,” said Amy Purdy, Paralympian snowboarder. “People assume that we’re in high-tech feet. But they’re nowhere near high tech enough to move the way a normal foot moves.”
But creating solutions is something that Purdy and her fellow Paralympians are used to. They are no strangers to obstacles and embrace the chance to show the world that they are capable of anything.
This confidence and ambition caught the eye of Toyota, one of the sponsors helping Purdy to achieve her personal goals and Olympic dreams. Additionally, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and The Hartford are all Olympic Committee Sponsors, supporting both the Olympics and Paralympics.
With support from organizations like these moving forward from these Paralympic Games, Purdy and Adaptive Action Sports are leading the charge toward bringing adaptive snowsports to the mainstream and inspiring a new generation of athletes.
Amy Purdy's legs are currently in two different time zones. As we sit nestled in the double amputee's cozy condo in Frisco, her right leg is in Silverthorne with her machinist, Fin Doyle of Bomber Bindings, while her left leg is with her prosthetist at Prosthetic Orthotic Associates in Orlando, Fla.
Clad in a flannel shirt and grey jeans, and beautifully makeup free, Purdy is laid back and confident. She occasionally flips her thick, groovy hair. Reminiscent of the '70s, it's wild and almost feathered and somehow manages to fall perfectly into place with each hair toss. She looks upward as she ponders each question, managing to speak in sound bites, eloquent and succinct statements that tell of her years of motivational speaking.
In the front hallway, there are countless medals and awards that she's been collecting over time. Her guest room has been taken over by spare snowboards, boots, skateboards and sponsor apparel. As we chat, we sip chai tea lattes in amusing souvenir mugs that she collects on each of her worldly adventures.
She beams when she speaks of traveling: snowboarding in Spain, training in Austria, competing in Indonesia on the Amazing Race. At 34, she's an athlete and an adventurist.
“I lost my legs, I lost my kidneys, I lost my spleen, I lost my hearing in my left ear, but I’ve gained so much more. I’ve gained an amazing life, full of passion and inspiration.”
This sense of duality has become an overarching theme on Purdy's road to the Paralympics — as well as her journey through life.
There are two sides to Purdy: the competitive snowboarder on the snow and the compassionate humanitarian off the snow. Finding a balance between the two can be hard, but Purdy has created a life for herself that fosters both. There is a grace and warmth that radiates from within. Her sparkling eyes tell of a multi-layered woman filled with drive and passion. Full of charm and charisma, her incredible story and eloquence have taken her from delivering one of the highest rated TED talks to a TOMS/Element Skateboard shoe drop donation in South Africa.
Two legs lost
At the age of 19, Purdy contracted a rare form of bacterial meningitis. Within 24 hours of developing flu-like symptoms, she was on life support in the emergency room in Las Vegas, with less than a 2 percent chance of survival. Her body went into a state of septic shock, experiencing organ failure and the loss of circulation to her extremities. She slipped into a three-week coma, her body fighting to save itself. She awoke to the loss of two kidneys, her spleen, the hearing in her left ear and another stark reality: The loss of circulation to her feet and ankles left no choice but to amputate both legs below the knee. Purdy had never seen an amputee or a prosthetic leg before.
"My own were the first amputee legs I had seen," she said. "I had seen pictures, but it was hard to grasp."
In that moment, when others may have thought their life was over, she decided hers was just beginning.
Two chances at life
"Not many people get a second chance at life, so how do I want to live this second chance?" Purdy said. As she lay in the hospital bed, physically and emotionally broken, she knew she wanted to do two things — somehow help others through her loss and get back onto a snowboard. She had been an avid snowboarder since the age of 15, falling in love with the freedom she felt on the slopes. Daydreaming about riding again helped motivate her on her road to recovery and gave her a sense of direction. With the constant support of her loving family, she knew she had the inner strength to achieve anything she set her mind to.
Through painful trials and tribulations, Purdy learned to walk, dance and ultimately come to peace with her two new legs and new way of life. There were no legs specifically designed for snowboarding, but she didn't let that stop her. Using duct tape, wood and whatever she needed, she was going to get out there and get after it. Six short months after being released from the hospital, she triumphantly rode a snowboard for the first time with prosthetic legs. This was it. This is what she was destined for.
Two years later, Amy encountered another bump in her path to recovery. Her kidneys were not repairing themselves, as the doctors had initially hoped. Her battle with bacterial meningitis resulted in near complete failure in both kidneys, and it became apparent that a kidney transplant was necessary. Days after her 21st birthday, she received a kidney transplant from her father, who was a near perfect match. A mere three months after her kidney transplant, she competed in the USASA National Snowboard Competition, bringing home three medals. This victory sparked the fire in Purdy and intensified her drive and determination.
"I've never been good at not doing my best," she said. "I've always strived to do the best I can."
Feb. 2, 2002, was the day Purdy met Daniel Gale, her business partner, boyfriend and best friend. Spend two minutes in a room with them, and you can see why they've been inseparable since they met in Crested Butte nearly 12 years ago. A mutual respect, adoration and attraction are palpable, along with a shared sense of humor that seems to heighten the occurrence of hilarity.
With her support system in tact, Purdy focused on regaining her strength and improving her snowboarding abilities. After finding herself continually frustrated with the lack of resources, she knew she needed to find a solution not only for herself, but also for similar athletes. Seeing a need within the snowsports industry, Purdy and Gale in 2005 created the nonprofit Adaptive Action Sports (AAS), which offers opportunities to youth, young adults and wounded war vets with permanent disabilities.
AAS was the first snowboard-specific organization for amputees seeking outdoor adventure, offering clinics, snowboard camps, training sessions and even bringing the adaptive snowboarding to the X Games. Purdy and Gale have spent the past eight years dedicated to growing the sport, garnering international interest and increasing mainstream popularity and, perhaps most importantly, "creating a space for amputees to come and play."
Purdy's compassion and infectious spirit are evident as she speaks about teaching kids to live without limits.
"Becoming a Paralympic athlete is not just possible, but you can create a career from it," she said. "That's huge — that's breaking boundaries."
AAS now has now found a home at Copper Mountain. With its new facility in Center Village, the organization provides athletes with a gym, tuning station, flat screens for video analysis and start-gate training. Having this exclusive training format, along with coaching from Gale and utilizing Copper as her home mountain, has allowed Purdy to dedicate her time and focus on preparation for Sochi.
No. 2 in the world
Now ranked as the second highest female adaptive snowboarder in the world, Purdy's dedication is paying off. This spring, she will travel to Sochi, Russia, to compete in the 2014 Paralympics. Purdy is making history before she's even arrived; thanks in part to her own efforts and those of AAS, this is the first time ever that snowboarding is a Paralympic sport.
"In this Olympic year, I'm not striving to be THE absolute best, I'm striving to be MY best," she said. "I was always a snowboarder, but now I'm an athlete."
She's always worked out but is now focusing on getting her body into the best physical condition she can. Her on-snow training is complemented with a regimen that includes CrossFit, yoga, hot baths and lots of good, quality sleep.
As the only dual amputee who will be competing in the Paralympics Boardercross, Purdy has as extra set of boundaries that she's pushing through. Not being able to rely on one "good" leg increases the need for her prosthetic legs to be perfect. This is something she's struggled with since her first set of prosthetic legs.
"Because we are at the beginning of our sport, no one has developed an ideal snowboard foot," she said. "So all the athletes are in their garage, customizing off-the-shelf feet to try to make them bend a little bit like we need it to bend for a snowboard foot. It's a serious process. I spend a lot of time in the machine shop."
A mere 2 millimeter adjustment can make a world of a difference, thus the need to have one foot in Florida with her prosthetist, while the other foot gets a two millimeter adjustment from her machinist here locally. Constant minute adjustments are essential to getting her feet and legs where they need to be. The Olympics have given her extra incentive to figure out the best situation for her prosthetics.
"In my mind, I know what I can do, I just have to have the body parts to do it," Purdy said. "When I know something isn't right with my legs, I'm not going to settle. I want to get to a point when I feel totally capable."
Having experienced snowboarding before the loss of her legs presents an interesting situation. She knows what it's supposed to feel like. She knows what it's like to not even think about your legs and just focus on the hill. This quest to get back to that sense of freedom fuels her laborious refinement of her equipment.
"As my skill level advances, I need my legs to keep up," Purdy said. "It's always moving forward and progressing. The leg setup that I had last year that I thought, 'This is it, I'm dialed, don't have to think about my legs anymore.' But as soon as my skill level went up, those didn't work for me anymore. I suddenly needed more ankle flection or more dynamic movement."
Getting her legs to match her snowboarding ability level is an ongoing process, and going toward the Olympics is just making her that much more driven. Now on her fourth pair of new feet this year, she's hoping these feet will carry her to a gold medal.
With the Paralympic games in Russia on the horizon, Purdy has much to look forward to. She's healthy, happy and committed, looking toward the Paralympics and beyond and focusing on a picture larger than her own.
"I feel stronger now than I ever have, snowboard, race-wise and mentally," Purdy said. "I'm really excited and dedicated to the innovations of proper prosthetics for this sport. For the next four years, I want to focus on that. I'm excited for not just my riding but the proper leg setup for riding — through the organization, helping other people."
There are two ways to look at everything. There are always two sides to every story, two ways to look at life and its occurrences. Some choose to view life's unexpected events as tragedies; some choose to view them as part of a greater journey. Purdy chooses the later, managing to find the good in everyone and everything that comes her way.
"There's always something that you gain; you don't just lose," she said. "I lost my legs, I lost my kidneys, I lost my spleen, I lost my hearing in my left ear, but I've gained so much more. I've gained an amazing life, full of passion and inspiration. The people I've met, the journeys I've been on and the traveling I've done is so much more."
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