Amy Purdy stands in the living room of her home in Crested Butte, Colorado doing a run-through of what she needs for a day of snowboarding. She rustles around the items in her backpack as she murmurs an inventory to herself: “Goggles…sunscreen…legs…scarf.”
Purdy, 31, is the best female adaptive snowboarder in the world, and the legs in question are part of the reason why. They’re the result of more than 10 years of trial-and-error research, with Purdy making thousands of trips up and down mountains to determine how to make prosthetic limbs that would give her the ability to not only snowboard, to not only snowboard without pain -- but to snowboard really damn fast without pain.
The snowboarding legs she totes in her bag are made of wood and articulated ankles that allow her a touch more feel and control as she carves through the snow. “Your feet have 180 bones and muscles,” Purdy says. “For me, it’s kind of like snowboarding on stilts.”
You would never know she was a double amputee by her stance, her aggression, or her speed.
It may seem like a recipe for an awkward, ungainly trip down the mountain, but Purdy’s stilts serve her well. You would never know she was a double amputee by her stance, her aggression, or her speed. Purdy makes the kind of runs where she chatters over the ice as she bombs down the mountain, the kind that flash freezes her cheeks and bass kicks her heart rate. As a result, she’s won three World Snowboard Federation Para-Snowboard World Cup gold medals.
But if you were a betting kind of person in Las Vegas in the summer 1999, the odds were not in favor of this happy, active outcome for Purdy. Because that year, during the month of July, she was laying in a hospital bed with a two percent chance of survival.
At 19, Purdy trained as a massage therapist with the goal of attaining a gleefully itinerant lifestyle of traveling from ski resort to ski resort to work in spas and snowboard in her off-time. One day while working in Las Vegas, Purdy felt like she was coming down with the flu. Within 24 hours, she was on life support after being diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.
She became the first person in Las Vegas in 20 years to contact the Neisseria meningitidis strain and survive. But her survival was costly: her spleen ruptured, she lost hearing in her left ear, and doctors amputated both legs below the knee due to septic shock. Her father gave her one of his kidneys.
Purdy had a team of 13 doctors on her case, and as soon as she was well enough to speak, she started questioning each of them. “I’d say ‘When can I snowboard again? Do you know about snowboarding prosthetics?’” Purdy says. “And they were like, ‘I don’t even know if you’ll walk without a cane again.’ And that’s all they had to say to get the wheels turning. You have a lot of time when you’re just sitting in a hospital bed to get inspired to be in a situation other than the one you’re in.”
With her red hair and skinny jeans, Purdy is far more of a fashion plate than your run-of-the-mill, showering-is-for-the-weak kind of ski bum. She’s gregarious and effusive, and talks with her hands, gesturing to emphasize a point or to engage the listener in her story. Her demeanor is of someone who has an added appreciation of life because she’s been through such rigors; at one point she looks down at her chipped nail polish and reflects. “I almost lost my hands,” she says. “I have to say that was one huge thing right off the bat. Even though I had just lost my legs, I was prepared to lose my hands as well. And to not lose my hands, I was like ‘OK, I’m on top of this.’”
To Purdy’s dismay, there was no substantive information about amputee snowboarding -- or any action sport -- online. “At the time there were a ton of resources for people with disabilities for skiing, for swimming, for cycling, for triathlons -- more classic sports,” she says. “But the word adaptive didn’t even exist at that point -- it was ‘disabled sports something’ or ‘handicapped sports something’ and I didn’t relate to that at all.”
After doing her own research and consulting with prosthetic manufacturers Purdy got back up on a snowboard seven months later -- maintaining her record of never missing a snow season. “I was still incredibly sick,” she says. “I was 83 lbs., I had tubes sticking out of me, I was on dialysis every day. But I got up on a snowboard like I said I would. I got off the chairlift and that was OK, but when I tried to carve I realized that it didn’t feel the way I visualized at all. I was pretty much a stickman stuck in a snowboard.”
Although there was no formal infrastructure, through the Internet Purdy did meet several other adaptive snowboarders and they decided to go on a trip to Crested Butte to compare notes about snowboarding with prosthetics. That night, she went to a bar, where she met Daniel Gale, who went to school at nearby Western State College. (“She’s gorgeous, so I hit on her,” Gale explains.)
The next day the duo went snowboarding for their first date. Later that evening, after a full day on the slopes, Purdy motioned to the hat Gale was wearing from the skateboarding company C1rca. “I had a C1rca sticker on my legs, so I said ‘Hey, we’re twins!’ and I pulled my pant leg up to show him my prosthetic. He was like, ‘Oh!’ So then I pulled the other one up and I was like ‘I’ve got two!’ And he was like, ‘Ohhhh!’”
But Purdy found more than a boyfriend -- she found a business partner. Gale earned his degree in recreation therapy and his mother is a nonprofit consultant. Upon learning of Purdy’s struggles to find any support about adaptive snowboarding, in 2005 they founded Adaptive Action Sports to guide amputees with an interest in snowboarding and skateboarding.
In the past seven years, the nonprofit has grown from an online message board for amputee athletes to an organization that offers extensive in-person programs. Now, AAS athletes visit new amputees in hospitals to tell them about athletic opportunities; they also offer information sessions for recently returned veterans wounded in war. AAS holds on-the-mountain clinics for all levels of adaptive athletes -- as well as able-bodied snowboarders who might be in the need of a little inspirational boost.
In December in Crested Butte, snowboarder Evan Strong, who lost his leg after being hit by a car in Hawaii, and Brandon Robins, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, instructed a group of 12 kids from a local orphanage who were appropriately awed that the tough guys leading them down the mountain were doing so with prosthetics. “It definitely gives you a platform,” says Robins, a professional wakeboarder before his accident turned him into a competitive adaptive snowboarder. “If you’re an able-body and didn’t think you can do it -- it gives you inspiration to see somebody who’s missing a limb do it.”
But AAS doesn’t just hold classes; they provide a marketing and support pipeline for talented amateur athletes to become professionals. Thanks to Purdy and Gale, participation in the United States of America Snowboard Association’s adaptive division has jumped and adaptive boardercross is now an event in the Winter X Games. In 2011, AAS debuted ASX, a competitive adaptive snowboard series that pays a cash purse to winning competitors.
“Say you’re a wounded vet, and there’s a ton of them who are young and want to get back into life and they’re laying in the hospital now with no leg or a missing leg and thinking, ‘Now I know there’s X Games, but where do I even start?’” Purdy says. “We can give them the resources and have events available to have them actually come up and learn to ride, learn what kind of legs to use, learn how to get up on a board for the first time, and get introduced to the competition.”
Strong, who planned to become a professional skateboarder, is now the No. 1 ranked male adaptive snowboarder in the world, and reigning Winter X Games gold medalist in Adaptive Boardercross. “Daniel and Amy really saw a niche that needed to be filled,” he says. “After my accident, I thought ‘I’m part of the amputee community now and I want to participate in sport because that’s what makes me feel alive -- but now I have to wrap myself in spandex and get on a road bike?’ I was like, ‘OK, I’ll try this just because I want to hang out with people like me -- but what I love is board sports.’ I wouldn’t be where I am today without either of them.”
A last-minute application for snowboarding to be an official sport in the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, was refused; alpine skiing has been a Paralympic sport since it was demonstrated in 1984, and Gale compares the state of adaptive snowboarding to that of able-bodied snowboarding 10 years ago -- it’s just a matter of time before it gains acceptance in the wider community.
So if snowboarding is allowed into the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea? “I will party for, like, three days straight,” Gale says. “It would change the entire landscape for the snowsports adaptive community. As soon as it’s in the Paralympics, funding is going to open up, kids who want to snowboard but are pushed in the direction of monoskis can say, ‘No, I want to snowboard. I have an option.’”
As Purdy switches from her walking legs to her snowboarding legs at the base of the mountain in Crested Butte, one man comes to a dead stop and stares, an awkward gawking amazement that draws more eyes to him than towards Purdy. She pays him no attention.
“For me, I always wanted to travel the world and I always thought I was going to be a competitive professional snowboarder,” Purdy says. “And I’m doing what I set out to do -- but in a completely different way than I ever imagined I would do it.”
Check out the March 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands February 14) for more. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.