An Unexpected Journey: Amy Purdy, limitless
Photos: Ian Ruhter
Originally featured in Snowboard Mag Vol. 10, Issue 3 | The Cerebral Issue
It was an average Las Vegas, Nevada day and 19-year-old Amy Purdy woke up feeling great. She went to work at the 5-star resort where she was a massage therapist, a gig that had her giving up to 7 massages a day, but this day was different. After the third massage Amy was exhausted and feeling like she had the flu she headed home. “I was lying in bed and I kept falling asleep and waking up and passing out and waking up and couldn’t figure out why I was so tired,” Amy explains. She fell into the deepest sleep she had ever experienced and awoke to a voice saying, “Amy, get up and look in the mirror.” It was a powerful voice and she immediately opened her eyes. Sitting up, Amy felt extremely weak and was gasping for air. Something was seriously wrong. “I scooted to the edge of the bed and realized I couldn’t feel my feet. I looked down and my feet were purple and I glanced at my hands and they were purple. Then I looked in the mirror and saw that my nose, chin and cheeks were purple. And then it hit all at once that I was dying and I knew I was dying.”
At that moment, Amy’s cousin happened to walk in, saw the dire condition and rushed Amy to the hospital. By the time they arrived Amy’s lungs and veins had collapsed and she was in cardiac arrest. Amy was immediately put on life-support and went into a coma. “It took five days for them to figure out that I had Bacterial Meningitis.” Due to these microscopic bacteria, over the course of three months Amy lost her spleen and kidney function as well as both legs below the knee due to septic shock.
“Snowboarding is what saved my life,” Amy says. “I didn’t even care about walking. Of course I wanted to walk, but all I could think about was snowboarding. It kept me looking forward instead of back. I just kept thinking this is my situation and I have to figure out how to do the stuff I love.”
Six months after she lost her legs, Amy was snowboarding again in a much different way. “I have one piece of metal and I’m snowboarding a foot off the ground,” she explains. “This is the huge misconception in the prosthetic industry, everyone thinks that we have these amazing, high tech-legs. We have high-tech materials like carbon fiber sockets and titanium feet, but I call it high-tech/low-tech because when you really think about it I’m snowboarding on stilts. There’s no dynamic movement to our feet.”
Amy’s been working with MIT engineers and also with Doyle at Burton to create new designs. “The inspiration and motivation is there, but it’s going to be quite some time before there is a foot that is optimal for snowboarding. I’m held back by the lack of technology right now, but when I’m riding, I don’t really think about my legs, I’m just snowboarding. That’s what I love about it.” Another thing Amy hasn’t fully explored is her setup. “I’m the only person that can pick what size feet I want!” she exclaims. “I can make my snowboard more narrow because I can choose smaller feet and get over my edges a little bit quicker. Out of all the other amputees nobody else can do that.” Future innovations could finally create a dynamic board/foot connection. While Amy doesn’t have an advantage now, “eventually there could be.”
In 2005, Amy and her boyfriend Daniel Gale founded Adaptive Action Sports, an organization that includes snowboarding, skateboarding, rally car and motocross camps for veterans, youth and young adults living with permanent physical disabilities. Through Adaptive Action Sports Amy and Daniel worked to get snowboarding into the Paralympics. “When I first started riding with prosthetics I just wanted to ride with my friends,” says Amy. She began competing in local and then national USASA boardercross competitions and progressed fast. As the field became more competitive, larger organizations stepped in to sanction Adaptive Snowboard World Cups. “We actually fought for boardercross here in the US,” she says. “In other countries they were fighting for giant slalom and slalom, but we really fought for the more freestyle side of it and boardercross was the perfect mix of abilities. As I began to see my ability in the sport I wanted to push it and get other people involved.” Amy’s won three World Cup gold medals in a row and now gets to pursue a newfound Olympic dream as boardercross debuts in the Paralympics.
“I didn’t even care about walking. Of course I wanted to walk, but all I could think about was snowboarding. It kept me looking forward instead of back. I just kept thinking this is my situation and I have to figure out how to do the stuff I love.”
“It’s funny, people like to ask, ‘So you’ve been an athlete for a long time?’ And I’m like, no, I’m a snowboarder, I’ve been a snowboarder for a long time. But this year for the first time I do feel like I’m an athlete. I’m doing everything I have to do to be the best snowboarder I can be.” Amy feels like the whole world is supporting her to be her best. “It’s really exciting,” she says. “It just makes you realize there is no reason to hold back. Right now I feel like I am totally living my dreams. I’m doing more now than I ever imagined I would and I’ve got more support than I ever imagined I would have. Why hold back or why preserve myself to live my dreams in the future when I’m living my dreams right now?”
Being a snowboarder and an athlete is just one facet of Amy Purdy. “One of the things I wanted to do before I lost my legs was move to LA at some point and try to be an actress,” she says. “After I lost my legs I remember feeling like it would be badass to see a model or an actress and find out later on she has prosthetic legs.” Amy started to think about what you can do with these legs creatively, since they don’t have to look real. “If I worked with the right artist they could look like whatever we want, and we could make them out of any material. So they’re actually kind of a creative accessory.”
“I remember thinking at one point that Madonna would be the kind of person that could take this and make it look badass,” says Purdy. “Then randomly I got a call from Madonna’s agent and they asked me to be in her music video for American Life.” At first the directors didn’t know what to do with Amy and shuffled her into wardrobe where she was given a long dress and braids in her hair. The music video was centered around a catwalk with Madonna sitting at the end. Amy was standing backstage, listening to the music, and thought, “I know they hired me because of my legs, but you can’t see my legs.” The music got louder and Amy strutted out with attitude. “When I got to the end of the runway I threw my dress up and did this dance so Madonna could see my legs and then I turned around and walked off. And she was like ‘CUT!’ She ran backstage and was like ‘you’re amazing, you’re beautiful, your legs are awesome, do you mind if I sex you up?’ I was like, you’re Madonna, you can do whatever you want. So Madonna grabbed some boy shorts, put tape over my nipples, gave me a fur jacket and then greased me up, made my hair and makeup all crazy and put me back out on the runway. It ended up being this really amazing and empowering moment.” The experience left Amy more fascinated to use what she has creatively.
Next Amy was cast in a lead film role for What’s Bugging Seth. Then Nikki Sixx called with a vision of a fantasy character, Amy in Wonderland, whose legs were made of icepicks. “The guy who built the Ironman costume for the movies built my legs and this kind of corkscrew arm that I wore,” says Amy. The photos became the centerfold in Nikki’s New York Times best selling book, This Is Gonna Hurt. “It was another one of those cool projects where you get to work with artists who think outside the box and I’m totally all for that,” she says. “I’ve got these legs that can turn into anything.”
Aside from all these Hollywood gigs, Amy’s 2011 Ted Talk, Living Beyond Limits not only went viral, but launched Amy into a global professional speaking career and a wave of opportunity she’s stoked to ride. In 2012, Amy and Daniel entered The Amazing Race, and while their race was short-lived, they quickly became fan favorites. This winter Amy is on the road to Sochi for the Paralympics where she will give it her all in the real amazing race, this time on her snowboard, with the support of her country and a world of people she’s already inspired. “Each time I think it can’t get any bigger than this, I’m just so satisfied and so fulfilled,” says Amy. “I’ve done what I set out to do.”