Amy Purdy celebrates during the medal ceremony of the women's snowboard banked slalom SB-LL1 final at the Paralympic Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 16, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
The past nine months have been traumatizing, terrifying and ultimately life-affirming for Amy Purdy.
The double below-the-knee amputee and three-time Paralympic snowboarding medalist fought hard to save the rest of her left leg after a massive blood clot in February. She also risked losing her only working kidney. With that crisis averted, Purdy faced another setback in October when a major artery abruptly closed.
A couple of days later, an ultrasound showed new arteries growing “literally like roots of a tree, branching off my femoral artery to bypass the blockage,” Purdy said. “We didn’t expect that to happen and yet it did. So once again, I’m even more appreciative of my body and how resilient it is.”
While she’s on crutches or a scooter now because she isn’t ready to wear a prosthetic on her left leg, Purdy is determined to walk and eventually ride a snowboard again.
“Right now I have to take baby steps and just see how far I go,” she said. “Some people are like, ‘You’re not walking yet, so are you retiring?’ And I’m like, ‘Gosh, I don’t even want to think about that.’ I hope to get back (to the Paralympic Games) again.
“I’ve always been really goal-oriented. If I know that I have something I’m working towards, then I’ll put everything I can into it.”
And, oh yes, Purdy faced another major milestone recently: On Nov. 7, she turned 40. She definitely took that in stride.
“If it wasn’t for everybody making a big deal out of it then I wouldn’t feel any different than I did before,” Purdy said. “Even though I’ve been through so much this last year, I feel strong, healthy, my body’s bouncing back really good. So I really only have gratitude even just for the opportunity to turn 40. Not everybody gets that opportunity.”
For Purdy, the birthday marked a chance to try out another version of herself – Amy Purdy 3.0.
She recognizes that the first two versions lasted roughly 20 years apiece, so this one should take her to age 60.
A New OutlookAmy Purdy and Derek Hough attend the 33rd Annual Cedars-Sinai Sports Spectacular on July 15, 2018 in Inglewood, California.
“Amy Purdy 3.0 is maybe a little bit of a softer version,” Purdy said. “I still want to figure out the possibilities, of course. I still want to live my life outside of limitations, but with the knowledge that maybe I don’t need to push myself as hard as I did before.”
During Amy Purdy 1.0, she took up snowboarding when she was 15 and became a massage therapist to support herself while pursuing her passion.
Then Purdy contracted bacterial meningitis at age 19, losing both legs below the knee as well as her spleen.
“That’s when my life changed forever,” she said. “However, I went on to be able to be the strongest I’ve ever been in my life.”
Enter Amy Purdy 2.0.
Once she got prosthetics, she was up and snowboarding within six months, pushing herself and her new legs as much as she could. After all, Purdy’s motto was, “Live Beyond Limits.”
“I have been go, go, go nonstop for the last 20 years,” she said. “Ever since I lost my legs and realized I could walk again and snowboard again, I took off and I did not want to slow down because I was so grateful for every moment that I had that I was active and healthy.
“I literally checked so many bucket list items in Amy Purdy 2.0.”
Purdy helped advocate for snowboarding to join the Paralympic Winter Games, and she and the sport debuted together in 2014. Purdy won the bronze in snowboardcross in Sochi and took silver in the same event at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 as well as bronze in banked slalom, which debuted there.
Immediately after Sochi, she placed second on “Dancing with the Stars,” earning perfect scores in three dances, including the Argentine Tango and Cha-Cha-Cha, with partner Derek Hough.
In 2.0, Purdy also competed in “The Amazing Race,” wrote a New York Times bestselling book and established a career as a motivational speaker – walking back and forth on stage in a dress and high heels that showcased her artificial legs. In 2005, she and her eventual husband, Daniel Gale, founded Adaptive Action Sports, a nonprofit organization and branch of Disabled Sports USA that is dedicated to introducing people with physical challenges to action sports.
Overuse Injury Sneaks UpAmy Purdy of United States celebrates during the victory ceremony following the women's banked slalom SB-LL1 at the Paralympic Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 16, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
Purdy wore her prosthetics 12 to 18 hours a day, walking through three or four airports a week on top of working out as a professional athlete.
Last February, Purdy had no inkling her world was about to swirl out of her control. “I was riding the best I ever had,” she said.
At the Paralympics 11 months earlier, Purdy thought the feet she had worked on for many years were just about perfect. “As soon as Korea was over, I came home and dialed them in even more,” she said.
But what Purdy thought was a bruised left calf and a mechanical issue with the prosthetic socket was becoming an overuse injury: a massive blood clot from her hip to the end of her leg just below the knee.
She felt a cramp in the calf while giving a speech in Las Vegas, and then two days later woke up in terrible pain. When the clot was discovered, Purdy was afraid she would have to choose between saving her leg or the kidney she’d received from her father as a result of her illness.
“I have been hit down multiple times in my life but this time by far has been the hardest,” she posted on Facebook on Feb. 24 under the heading “Calling all my prayer warriors.”
“I’m more scared than I’ve ever been & yes staying positive doesn’t seem as easy this time,” Purdy wrote, adding that she had “cried from the depths of my soul.”
Purdy had surgeries in February and March, but they only eliminated part of the clot. Purdy then searched diligently to locate a doctor who would not put her kidney at risk. The treatment, a solution dripping into her leg for 24 hours, was excruciatingly painful, but effective.
However, when Purdy tried to put on her prosthetic leg in June, her leg turned purple and lost circulation at the bottom. Her arteries had shrunk, restricting blood flow.
Under PressureAmy Purdy adjusts her prosthetic leg on May 12, 2017 in Arapahoe, Colorado.
The solution was a hyperbaric chamber in Denver, where Purdy spent about four hours a day, five days a week for six weeks. She had to get tubes in her ear because of the pressure on her eardrum.
“It was a pretty major thing that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to actually do because of how uncomfortable it was,” Purdy said. “Ultimately, I ended up really enjoying it because it felt empowering. I knew I was doing something every single day that could help my body.”
The hyperbaric chamber sessions were supposed to put pressure on her capillaries and improve circulation.
With blood flow to her leg running normally and her recovery seemingly going well, Purdy was stunned to find out in early October that her popliteal artery had suddenly closed “out of nowhere.”
Her doctor talked about doing an emergency surgery to open it with a laser.
“That was also a very scary option,” Purdy said, “because once you go in and do that type of surgery, you might have to go in every two months for the rest of your life to try to keep it open.”
The doctor asked how her leg felt and Purdy said it was warm, which was a good sign. The color also looked good. They held off on surgery. A couple of days later the ultrasound showed at least 10 new arteries had popped up, possibly a result of the hyperbaric chamber.
“The popliteal artery just looks black because there’s no blood rushing through it,” Purdy said, “but all around it these big branches of a tree are just reaching down right below that blockage and feeding blood into my lower leg. It’s really fascinating, and I feel so grateful because that doesn’t always happen.”
However, she still isn’t walking because she doesn’t have enough circulation to wear her prosthetic comfortably.
Workout PlanAmy Purdy competes in the women's adaptive snowboard final at the Dew Tour on Dec. 13, 2018 in Breckenridge, Colorado.
Instead, she is having one made that she can use just for spin cycling. “The more muscle you build, the more your body creates little blood vessels to feed that muscle,” Purdy said. “My goal is to get strong, then get walking and then build from there. I need my legs to be good to go before I get on the snowboard.”
Purdy is also limiting her time on crutches so she doesn’t overwork or injure her right leg. That’s why she has a mobility scooter, which was provided by her longtime sponsor Toyota.
“From this point forward, I’m just going to be that much more conscious of listening to my body and making sure that I’m putting it first,” Purdy said. “In the past, I think having an athlete mentality you push through pain. You’re doing a photo shoot and you’re like, ‘Yep, I will push all day long until you get the shot.’ Now I’m realizing I want to preserve everything I have.”
Thanks to the scooter, she’s been able to continue traveling to motivational speeches this fall, such as a software conference in Las Vegas in which Lady Gaga performed on the same stage the night before.
“It’s allowed me to be present in this moment without being depressed and overwhelmed,” Purdy said. “I’m able to still live my life and work – just a little bit differently right now than normal. I also travel with somebody, which to be honest has been a lot of fun. In the past I traveled alone a lot. Now my husband, mom or a good friend travel to each location with me and they’re able to help with luggage and stuff.”
She goes onstage with crutches and sits on a bar stool instead of roaming with a microphone.
“It’s created an even more intimate conversation,” said Purdy, who last week accepted the Jake Jabs Community Impact Award in Denver as part of the Easterseals Colorado “Season of Lights Gala.”
Making Connections(L-R) Cassie Sharpe, Amy Purdy and Nastia Liukin attend The 6th Annual "Gold Meets Golden" Brunch on Jan. 5, 2019 in West Hollywood, California.
“I just feel very lucky to have a career that I love, where I get to make a positive impact. I get to connect with a lot of people, and I feel blessed that even if I’m not at the peak of my physical strength or fitness, I’m able to still do the job that I love. So, right now I’m really just focused on doing what I can with what I have.”
And that brings us back to Amy Purdy 3.0.
Her ordeal, she admitted, “has kind of slowed things down a bit.”
“This whole year has made me take a big step back and just appreciate the small stuff, appreciate the simple things,” Purdy added, “not feel like I constantly have to be chasing some major goal. I’ve got quite a few accomplishments under my belt, so I think I can be pretty proud of how far I’ve come. So, I’m not putting any pressure on myself of what this now has to be or what this now will look like.
“I just know that I love where I’m at today, because I feel like even though I’m in this situation, even though I’m not 100 percent, even though I’m not walking like I was or working out like I was, I’m still able to make an impact in different ways.”
With the Para snowboarding world cup season kicking off in the Netherlands this month, Purdy was excited when two athletes trained by Adaptive Action Sports, Zach Miller and Mike Minor, won gold medals for Team USA.
Adaptive Action Sports trained eight of the 13 snowboarders who represented Team USA in PyeongChang and took home six medals, including those won by Purdy.
“What’s so amazing is I might not be competing right now, but I’m able to help support these other athletes who want to compete,” Purdy said. “The athletes will come back and talk to me about their day, and I help to coach them mentally through some of their challenges or get them prepared for a competition.”
Like the arteries branching out in Purdy’s leg, these young athletes are offshoots of her training and experience. But the original could still join the new blood in Beijing in 2022 in some capacity.
“The Paralympics are such a part of who I am,” Purdy said. “With all the athletes doing the world cup in the Netherlands, it feels so weird not being there. I can say that one way or another I’ll definitely always be involved.”