Ski-lift riders watched in shock as a snowboard and a pair of legs zipped down the snow-covered run. Their owner, Amy Purdy, remained atop the mountain equally surprised. She had fallen and become detached from her prosthetic equipment.
This was part of what the world’s second-ranked para-snowboarder called the trial-and-error process since losing her lower limbs to meningococcal meningitis when she was just 19. Now, 15 years later, the hard work is coming to fruition.
Purdy is in Landgraff, Netherlands, this week competing with some of her U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team teammates at the season-opening International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing Snowboard World Cup. This will be their first step toward a spot in the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, set for March 7-16.
While the 2013-14 season culminates a hard-fought campaign to include para-snowboard on the Paralympic schedule that Purdy helped spearhead through her nonprofit, Adaptive Action Sports, her personal plan started years before. Purdy began snowboarding when she was an able-bodied 15-year-old in Las Vegas. She became an avid recreational snowboarder and part-time competitor, filling her weekends and school breaks with trips to the slopes.
“I had it in my sights that I wanted to be more of a competitive snowboarder once I graduated high school,” the 34-year-old Purdy said. “My goal was to travel the world and snowboard, and see how far I could take it.”
She attended massage school after high school with the sole intent of having a job that could travel with her while she snowboarded around the world. “Really, I became a massage therapist to support my snowboard habit,” Purdy said.
But her life took an abrupt detour when she contracted a bacterial blood infection in 1999. Within 24 hours, Purdy was on life support with a 2 percent chance of survival. Ultimately, she lost her spleen, the hearing in her left ear and both of her legs. Later, she would require a kidney transplant.
Purdy was determined to return to her sport. She made her way onto a snowboard just months after her amputations, but not without a few hiccups and many adjustments to equipment along the way.
Amy Purdy is the only double amputee competing internationally in para-snowboard.
“I had never missed a season of snowboarding,” she said. “I didn’t want to miss a season that year either.”
But Purdy discovered it was a lot different from before. “My ankles wouldn’t move and my knees wouldn’t bend. It was frustrating, but also really motivating because it kind of forced me to get creative and figure out a way to do this.”
That led to a 10-year mission to find the right legs. Purdy, a three-time world cup gold medalist, has replaced her sponsor-financed $30,000 set three times this year, seeking comfort and compatibility as she progressed in the sport.
“I rely 100 percent on my equipment, and my equipment, meaning my legs, have to work for me,” she said. “I need my legs to keep up with that. People think we’re in these high-tech legs that are amazing, and that’s why we can do what we do. But it’s the other way around. I’d say our ability level is way beyond what our legs are allowing us to do at this point. I’m constantly trying to get my legs to sit right, to be comfortable, to move the way I want them to.”
And this week, the only double amputee competing in the international para-snowboarding field, found them.
“I actually feel, right now, completely set up,” she said. “I feel better than ever.”
Purdy, who lives and trains in Copper Mountain, Colo., is eager to show off what she and her new legs and custom snowboard can do at the season’s first competition. Part of what she wants to share is the results of a bolstered training regimen. She said she has gained 10 pounds of muscle by working with a personal dry-land trainer on endurance and weightlifting four days a week. She practices on the mountain four to five days a week.
“I have stepped up my strength training and my equipment,” she said. “I am riding stronger than I ever have. I’m excited to showcase where I’m at, to see my improvements and how much I’ve grown.”
Purdy dominated the world cup circuit last season, securing her spot as the top female rider in the United States. The world cup in Landgraff will be the first boarder cross course she’s been on this season.
“Amy is ramping up for Sochi,” said Miah Wheeler, coach of the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team. “Landgraff is a step in that process, and not necessarily a results-based step but more of another opportunity to train under pressure. We will be methodically using every event leading up to Sochi to get the best result when it matters.”
This world cup event also will be the first time Purdy and her teammates will be officially competing as Team USA. Last season, the first in which the sport was slated for inclusion on the Paralympic Winter Games program, Purdy earned three silver medals in world cup contests. She’ll be facing the Netherlands’ Bibian Mentel, the world’s top-ranked snowboarder, and whom Purdy finished second to six times last season. Purdy’s closest U.S. competitor is Heidi Jo Duce, who edged out Purdy at the inaugural U.S. Paralympics Snowboard National Championships in Copper Mountain, Colo., in April. Purdy, however, beat Duce in six other head-to-head races in 2013, their first season competing against each other.
This world cup will show if Purdy’s improved training and well-fitting legs are enough to catch Mentel.
“She is who I am chasing,” Purdy said.
P.K. Daniel is a freelance sportswriter and editor based in San Diego. Her work has appeared in Baseball America, SB Nation, CBS Sports’ MaxPreps, and the U-T San Diego. She is a freelance contributor to USParalympics.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.