Amy Purdy — Medal Winning Paralympian

Super Abled Amy Purdy holding snowboard at the Paralympics

By her own admission, Amy Purdy loves a challenge. A Paralympian snowboarder—she holds a bronze and a silver medal—she’s confronted and conquered her own impossible many times over. But snowboarding wasn’t always a given for her.

A nearly lethal case of Bacterial Meningitis at 19 left Purdy fighting for her life. In a two-and-a-half month period, she lost her spleen, kidney function, hearing in one ear and both legs below the knees. What fueled her through her darkest days was her passion for snowboarding. Determined to hit the slopes again, the Las Vegas native improvised: she built a pair of feet to snowboard in that consisted of wood, rusty bolts, neon pink duct tape and various random parts. Today, those handcrafted feet have a home in the Smithsonian.

Empowered by her experience, Purdy created her own nonprofit called Adaptive Action Sports (AAS), which gets wounded veterans and kids with disabilities involved in action sports. She and AAS also labored successfully to get snowboarding accepted into the Paralympics, of which she participated in 2014 and 2018. In 2010, after her inspirational TED talk aired, Toyota reached out to her. Their missions and values aligned, and they’ve been working together ever since.

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Today, she’s a motivational speaker and best-selling author and a former Dancing with the Stars contestant. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper sat down with Purdy to converse about her latest foray into another action sport and the direction of her nonprofit.

Chet Cooper: Tell me about surfing.

Amy Purdy: Oh, yeah, it was awesome! Did you see the video?

Cooper: I didn’t see the video, but I saw—

Purdy: —a photo?

Cooper: —a still of you catching a wave. It must have been at Waikiki.

Purdy: No, it wasn’t Waikiki. It was in Maui.

Cooper: It was in Maui! I didn’t even know there were slow waves like that.

Purdy: Yeah, there were.

Cooper: Waikiki has nice, slow waves that are great for learners.

Purdy: Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard. Maui has The Cove, and that’s where it stays pretty shallow for quite a ways out and has great waves. The waves kind of varied in size two to three feet.

Cooper: The picture I saw was a perfect-sized wave.

Purdy: Yeah, it was perfect.

Cooper: Enough energy to give you that great—

Purdy: —long ride, too. Even though I’m a Paralympic snowboarder and challenge myself every day in that space, surfing was a whole different challenge for me. In fact, I lived on the sand for four years and never tried surfing before, just because there’s a lot of challenges with prosthetic legs—trying to figure out how to keep my legs on in the water, making sure my feet weren’t too heavy to kick me to the bottom of the ocean, seeing if my feet would even move in the right way, popping up. I always thought popping up from flat to my feet would be incredibly challenging.

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Cooper: That, you could practice on land. When you teach people to surf, you practice on the beach first.

Purdy: In the video I made, it shows me practicing a way to get up. So there were certain things that stopped me from wanting to try. Well, I wanted to do it. In my mind, I wanted to surf, but I just thought, “Oh, there are so many things to think about.” And then I once again decided to start my impossible, just decided to start and see what happened. It was amazing. I was able to get up on my second wave. I probably caught five waves that day.

Cooper: Oh, you don’t understand. Most people—

Purdy: —how long it can take.

left image: Purdy surfing. right image Purdy scuba diving

 Cooper: Yeah. Now, you are using a longer board, and you’re on a perfect wave, so that gives you some added advantage.

Purdy: Yeah, it does.

Cooper: But they teach about what pearling is and missing a wave. Do you know that language?

Purdy: No, and I’ll tell you, it was such a simple teaching process I think that’s what helped. Literally, like, they kind of just showed me how to get up. “That’s perfect, your stance, that’s perfect.” We went on the water and they were like, “Paddle! Go! Get up!” and I was thinking, “Is this it? That’s it? I’m there? Look out!” And that was it. They gave me three steps, and I was stuck with those three steps, saying, “Got it!” nearly every time.

Cooper: The majority of people don’t surf because they’ve tried and failed. Pearling is when you’ve got your body weight too forward on the board and the nose goes into the water. The second is, if you’re too far back, then you miss the wave.

Purdy: Exactly. And I will say the challenge I did not figure out on that first day was knowing the exact space—knowing where I should be on the board exactly, because my instructor would say, “OK, go an inch forward. Go an inch back.” He knew, but I wasn’t able to gauge that yet. And then also, when I was on the wave, it’s not like you’re looking behind you looking at the wave, so you don’t know at what point to stand up. So, luckily, I had him telling me, “OK, stand up!” I could hear him. And so I would follow his lead. Learning those things on my own will take a few more times out there, I’m sure.

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Cooper: But surfing in Colorado is really great.

Purdy: I hear it’s amazing. (laughs) Actually, there is a surf wave.

Cooper: A park?

Purdy: Yes. They’ve created a surf wave out of a river. They backed up a river in three different spots with a surf wave so you can jump out there. It’s made for surfing.

Cooper: There’s a whole thing about river surfing. That’s natural and occurs in certain rivers, a never-ending wave.

Purdy: They made it, but it’s the same concept. For me, it was so empowering, honestly. Because I have thought about surfing for so many years but thought—the challenges kept stopping me from wanting to try it. I was convinced that even if I figured it out, I wouldn’t be able to move the right way. It poses more challenges than snowboarding—just the power of the ocean alone.

Cooper: Yeah, you don’t drown in the snow. (laughs)

Purdy: Exactly! But gosh, I was so happy to get out there and do it and figure it out and say, “Oh, my gosh, I absolutely can do this!” It just takes taking that first step, figuring it out. Next time I’ll do better. I’ll have different feet.

Cooper: If you surf in California, make sure you’re talking to someone who understands you’re new and can tell you where to go, because there are a lot of surf breaks, some surfers will say, “Oh, that’s a really great wave,” and they don’t really understand.

Purdy: Yeah. Right. What’s needed.

Cooper: Have you heard Doheny?

A: Oh, yes, I have. My husband, he used to surf out there a lot.

Cooper: There’s a nice wave there that’s pretty slow and the crowds are not bad. And then the trails, surfer’s beach, actually, it’s called Old Man’s, because it’s a slow wave, so they say it’s for old men. You need to understand your body position to the board and not pearl when you get on a quick wave.

Purdy: I’m sure!

Cooper: Well, you’re an athlete, and you do snowboard, so you have a certain advantage.

Purdy: And I know core balance and my muscles—I know what I need. I had a very good idea of how much balance I was going to need, so I was able to find that balance spot for me.

Purdy with US Paralympian snowboarding team mates
Purdy with US Paralympian snowboarding team mates in South Korea. Photo by ABILITY’s Nancy Villere

Cooper: There are some similarities between snowboarding and surfing.

Purdy: There are. You’re going sideways. That’s huge, knowing that stance was natural for me. But then there are differences. The pressuring of the board and controlling the board were different. The balance was way different. It was like, as somebody mentioned on my Instagram page the other day, “Surfing with a prosthetic leg feels like wearing a ski boot while standing on a sofa cushion.” You’re kind of falling on your heels a little, and there’s not hard ground to be able to bend your knees. It’s moving underneath you the entire time. But it’s just another challenge. It makes me so excited, because that’s what I like. I like challenge.

Cooper: Have you tried motorcycles?

Purdy: Oh, yeah, motocross.

Cooper: You have ridden motocross—great! Did you like it?

Purdy: Yeah, that’s a lot of fun. I had to adapt a little bit with that as well as far as shifting gears, because I’m not able to shift with my toes.

Cooper: So you use the hand controls?

Purdy: No, I would shift with my heel and catch the little shifter right here. So instead of going back and shifting with my toes, I’d go up under it, and shift with my heel.

Cooper: That’s interesting. There are hand controls. People have modified—well, you know that because of the X-Games.

Purdy: Oh, yeah, those guys use hand controls quite a bit. But I was fine though with it that way. It worked perfectly fine for me as far as just jumping on the bike and going. I had a friend, Chris Ridgeway, who was in our motocross race when we did the X-Games. We rode quite a bit for a while.

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Cooper: Where did you ride?

Purdy: We rode up in Tahoe. He came up to Tahoe a few times driving through, and he just happened to have his bike.

Cooper: So trail riding?

Purdy: Yeah.

Cooper: That’s adventurous. I like the motocross track, because if you injure yourself there’s somebody to scoop you up.

Purdy: (laughs) Right! We were kind of off. But we do a lot of mountain biking in the summer in Colorado, and that’s all downhill on the trails, and you’re on your own.

Cooper: If you’re good at downhill mountain biking, you’ll be decent on a motocross bike.

Purdy: I can’t say I’m good at downhill mountain biking, but I definitely get better every time I do it. So that’s good.

Cooper: Do you know Ashley Fiolek?

Purdy: I don’t.

Cooper: She’s the fastest motocross rider. She’s also happens to be deaf.

Purdy: Oh, I do know who she is.

Cooper: She’s been writing for the magazine for umpteen years. That’s becasue she started when she was a teenager. Her life has just taken off because of that sport. She’s been all over the world, and Red Bull sponsored her.

Purdy: Oh, yeah, I’m sure!

Cooper: I think she won something at the X-Games.

Purdy: She did. I remember that.

Cooper: So I’ve ridden with her. I do motocross and surf. I’m not good at either. But gosh, she’s fast. All I would see is her rocks hitting my face!

Purdy: She knows what she’s doing, for sure.

Cooper: Do you know Jesse?

Purdy: Jesse Billauer? Yeah.

Cooper: Have you done anything with his event?

Purdy: No, I haven’t. We reached out to him many years ago to work with them. I imagine their organization has probably changed a lot.

Cooper: For a while they partnered with the Christopher Reeve Foundation. But I think it’s back to being independent. I know he’s doing events again.

Purdy: Yeah. They reached out to me just the other day actually to reconnect and see what we could do together.

Cooper: I think you guys would be perfect. As far as I’ve seen, he does more things with spinal paralysis, but it would be great to add—

Purdy: Right, but we do a lot with spinal. If we were still based in Southern California, we’d be working together right now. When we were out here, we were really focused on skateboarding and more summer sports. It wasn’t until snowboarding had the potential of being in the Paralympic Games that side of things started to take off for us. Before that, when we were in Southern California, we were doing snowboarding, and we were pushing to get it into the Games. In the meantime, we also had a skateboard team and had athletes traveling all over the place doing skateboard demos and different events. We were doing the X-Games, where we ran the skateboarding, adaptive skateboarding, and the adaptive motocross. Now that we’re in Colorado, we’re a little more detached from the California side of things. But definitely, I’ll get on the phone with them and see what we can do. We’re all about collaboration, which helps. They bring stuff to the table; we bring stuff to the table. We don’t work with that many spinal cord injuries and vice versa.

Cooper: Speaking about partnerships, do you know about our ABILITY House program?

Purdy: No.

Cooper: Amy!

Purdy: (laughs) Where have I been?

Cooper: (laughs) You’re familiar with Habitat for Humanity?

Purdy: Yes.

Cooper: We partnered with Millard Fuller, who started Habitat and who has passed away now. We build what’s called the ABILITY House. They are universally-designed homes for families with disabilities—

Purdy: Oh, wow!

Cooper: —and we access volunteers with disabilities to build the homes.

Purdy: Oh, that’s awesome! I had no idea! That’s cool!

Cooper: Yeah, we’ve gotten some major awards for that.

Purdy: How many homes do you build in a year?

Cooper: We’ve only built one and that fell apart. No, just kidding!

Purdy: (laughs) Oh, OK! I was like, “Good start—?”

Cooper: We’ve built many over the years. We do other things, too. Habitat has a program called A Brush With Kindness. We’ll go in and help modify a home, build a ramp, fix up the home, again with volunteers with disabilities. We partner with the Habitat affiliates and provide training, awareness building and outreach support.

Some affiliates get scared. But because we have the experience, they can’t say, “This can’t be done.”

Purdy: Exactly. That’s cool, and a great concept.

Cooper: We’ll invite you to participate. How often do you travel now?

Purdy: I travel all the time. Our Paralympic season just ended. I was joking around today saying, “Oh, so I have a little bit more time on my hands,” and then I look at my calendar. I’ve already filled it with new projects and different things going on. I’m a motivational speaker. When I did my TED Talk, it launched me into the corporate-speaking world, which is amazing. It’s pretty hard to break into that world, and that talk did that pretty quickly for me. I was just in Hawaii doing a speech.

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Cooper: Oh, is that why you were there?

Purdy: That was actually a corporate speech, but then I had a five-day vacation around it in Hawaii, which was great. I have a speech on a cruise ship next month, so I’m not complaining about the work or the travel I need to do right now. I also need a vacation, so it’s been perfect to be able to do both. It ebbs and flows. After the Paralympics and Dancing with the Stars and an Oprah tour, I did a Superbowl commercial with Toyota, and then I didn’t go home for two years. I was on the road. I’d go home for a day or two and be on the road again. It’s kind of nice things have mellowed out a little bit. I bought a house in Colorado, and my husband and I renovated it. So now I get to spend more time at home. At the same time, this year was competing and training and a ton of travel throughout the winter. I still do one or two speeches a month.

Speaking season for me starts now, after the snowboard season ends. It takes off in the spring and goes through the fall, so I never have a season that’s off. Maybe mid-summer in July.

Cooper: Tuesdays. (laughs)

Purdy: I’d say July is kind of my downtime. I’m trying to balance things more now, because I thoroughly enjoy my home time, in a routine and being able to be outdoors doing more adventurous stuff. It’s important for me to be outside. We live in the mountains, in a beautiful place. I want to have more time to try new things and doing all the things I like to do—paddleboarding, kayaking, fishing, camping, off-roading.

Cooper: Quad?

Purdy: No, I have a 4Runner that is like an off-road—I mean, it’s made to climb rocks. It’s amazing. We have a lot of amazing trails up there. We’ll go camping. The last few years I’ve been working, working, working nonstop. I took most of May off, to be honest, so I’m home for the majority of May and then I get back into my routine.

Cooper: When I looked you up in Wikipedia, it said—

Purdy: Wikipedia is wrong!

Cooper: It said you were 28—”Oh, yeah, Wikipedia is right!” you’re supposed to say! No, it said something about these athletic things, and then it said “and music.” What does that mean?

Purdy: Oh, that was for Adaptive Action Sports (AAS), I’d imagine. We just loved the culture of action sports. That was what I was raised in when I fell in love with snowboarding in high school. All my friends who were snowboarders were also artists and musicians, so it was a whole culture and vibe. When we started AAS, we wanted to not just support athletes with disabilities, but actions for athletes with disabilities and create programming for action sports. We also wanted to support artists and musicians with disabilities, and make sure our events had all those elements, so we could share the lifestyle and the culture. We didn’t want to be strictly sports, we wanted—

Cooper: —more inclusion?

Purdy: Yeah, more inclusion. This lifestyle we loved and we wanted to be able to share. We did work with quite a few artists early on, which was great, whether it was for fundraisers or art shows. At AAS, that’s still our core, our passion, but we’ve morphed as the times have changed. Snowboarding became a Paralympic sport.

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Cooper: So music’s out now?

Purdy: (laughs) Not that it’s out. Hopefully, it’ll be back. But when snowboarding became a Paralympic sport, we ended up focusing on that direction because we had athletes who had the potential of making it to the Paralympic Games. And then there were funding opportunities. Once it became a professional sport, that’s when we got more funding and grant opportunities, whereas we had zero funding or grants in skateboarding and some of the other programs we were passionate about that we were trying to run. So we’ve had to shift gears a little bit. But we want to get back to getting people involved in these sports in the first place, with the lifestyle and the quality of life. We have the competitive side but also the recreational side that we’re trying to expand a little bit more.

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