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.
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.
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.