Carving Her Own Path

Amy Purdy’s full-time job is helping others. Literally. As co-founder and executive director of Adaptive Action Sports (AAS), Purdy devotes every minute of her day to increasing the visibility of the disabled athlete, along with providing countless opportunities to those who have grown accustomed to hardship. But Purdy, herself a double transtibial amputee, is still surprised at how her life’s path has twisted and turned during the past 8 years.

Purdy was 19 years old in 1999 when her life took an unexpected turn. Working as a massage therapist at the time, the Las Vegas native was enjoying her post-high school life by doing what she did best: snowboarding. The possibilities were endless for Purdy. She was a well-respected snowboarder in a burgeoning extreme sports sect of the country, working a job that provided her the flexibility to lead an active and adventurous lifestyle. What happened next no one could have predicted.

Battling for her life

Purdy became sick with what seemed to be nothing more than flu-like symptoms and a “keep-your-eye-on-it” fever. But when Purdy awoke the next morning she knew something was seriously wrong. What seemed at the time to just be the flu was actually bacterial meningitis. She suffered multiple organ failure, both lungs had collapsed, and she slipped into a coma for 3 weeks. The lack of blood flow to her extremities left the doctors no choice but to amputate both of her legs below the knee. On top of her amputation, Purdy would also need a kidney transplant, which occurred in 2000. Although the traumatic events of those 2 years were life altering, the fact that Purdy, who was told she had a 2% chance of living, made it was astounding.

As Purdy set off on her road to recovery she was met with frustration. The difficulties she faced had nothing to do with her adjusting to her new prostheses (she was up riding again 7 months after her amputation) or regaining her strength following the transplant surgery, but rather the lack of action sports events for disabled athletes. She wondered why she could easily explore avenues if she wanted to be a disabled skier (skiing is a Paralympic event), but not snowboarding. She found it unfair that as action sports were becoming as mainstream as basketball and football, there still were no sponsored competitions aimed at disabled action-sports athletes. She had found her calling.

Getting back on the board

Amy Purdy
Image reprinted with permission of College Park Industries.

“When I first lost my legs I wanted to get back into snowboarding and I did a ton of research – and everyone wanted to sponsor me to ski. I had all this support if I wanted to be a skier or a runner, but not snowboarding, which is what I had been doing for so long,” Purdy said. “That is why we started Adaptive Action Sports. There are tons of disabled snowboarders. This year we [helped sponsor] the [United States of America Snowboard Association National Competition] and we had disabled snowboarders from six countries show up, which was incredible.”

The event Purdy spoke of is the only national snowboarding competition for disabled athletes and AAS, which was founded in 2005 by Purdy and fellow action sport enthusiast Daniel Gale, sponsors the disabled division. Furthermore, AAS helps disabled athletes cover travel and entry fees and supplies them with some equipment, as well as apparel. The mission of AAS, according to Purdy, is to encourage disabled athletes to venture outside any perceived norms and then provide them the opportunities to do so.

“With Adaptive Action Sports we realized there was just this huge hole and there needed to be something there. We wanted to be that place that you can go to if you’re disabled and you want to do snowboarding, skateboarding or any of these action sports, you don’t have as hard of a time figuring it out as I did,” Purdy said. “We have a database of hundreds of disabled athletes who are involved in [action] sports, or who want to be involved, and pretty much every day we get an e-mail from somebody who’s just lost their legs, or is going to, and wants to participate in [action] sports.”

Out of the woodwork

As someone who spends so much time opening up doors for disabled athletes, Purdy was thrilled when she first heard about the O&P Extremity Games by College Park, which were first held last July. As the Extremity Games were gaining steam, AAS was there to dispense advice and brainstorm ideas to make the games as successful as possible. Purdy competed in wakeboarding last year and will return again this July to compete in a sport that can best be described as a mix between water-skiing and snowboarding.

“We were just really excited and totally impressed with how well it was pulled together and how many athletes came out for it. It was like all of these athletes came out of the woodwork for it, which was cool for [AAS] because there were even more than we knew of,” Purdy said about the Extremity Games.

The Extremity Games also helped Purdy realize a long-term goal for AAS, as she said one of the main reasons for originally starting the non-profit organization was to eventually hold an event that mirrored the X-Games. The arrival of the Extremity Games meant that the publicity garnered by Purdy had been the impetus for something that would alter the landscape of disabled athletics. It had been 6 years of long, difficult work – but the results were beginning to trickle in.

Taking time to reflect

“[The Extremity Games] creates so much awareness for able bodied people, and organizations are now opening their eyes to action sports,” Purdy said.

It’s still not enough for Purdy, who continues to work tirelessly to make sure that all of her work up to this point will continue to drive the disabled athlete effort forward. But she does occasionally take a few seconds to reflect on the unexpected turns her life has taken, and what impact she has had on a community she never thought she would be a member of.

“It feels really good to know I’m on the right path, because I’m doing something good that I’m so passionate about. To realize I’ve been able to help create something, almost like an action sports movement, is just incredible. … If I could grow back legs and live my life differently, I definitely would not.”

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Andrew Kelly is the assistant editor of O&P Business News.

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