Column: Amy Purdy overcame an Olympic-sized challenge

By: 

Roger VanHaren

The Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, will be starting in the next few days, and people all over the world will be watching – not just because of the proximity to North Korea and its egomaniacal dictator Kim Jong-un, but because of the national pride of all the nations that are participating.

The competitors who perform in some of the winter Olympic sports are among the most graceful and elegant of all athletes. Figure skaters and ice-dancers are as graceful as ballet dancers on the ice. Other competitors, like Alpine skiers and snowboarders, exhibit amazing courage in their sports. There are many compelling stories associated with the Olympics.

Marilyn and I are fans of “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s fascinating to see how amateurs, paired with professional dance instructors, can be transformed into amazingly good dancers in just a few weeks. Star athletes like Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Donald Driver, Kristi Yamaguchi, Simone Biles and Shawn Johnson have won the coveted “mirror ball” trophy.

I mention this because one of the contestants on “DWTS” a couple of seasons ago will be competing in the Paralympics this winter, and hers is truly an inspiring story.

I’m talking about Amy Purdy, who finished second during the show’s 18th season, teamed with our favorite “pro,” Derek Hough. Her story is remarkable because Purdy is a double amputee, having had both legs amputated below the knees after nearly dying from meningitis in the late ’90s. She danced with no feet, and she’ll be competing in snowboarding with no feet.

Purdy had been snowboarding since she was 14, but when she lost both of her legs at age 19 and her snowboarding appeared to be over, she pushed herself to keep going. She became a world-champion adaptive snowboarder and an inspiration to others.

“If somebody would’ve told me that I was going to lose my legs at the age of 19, I would’ve thought there’s absolutely no way I’d be able to handle that. But then it happened, and I realized that there’s so much more to live for, that my life isn’t about my legs.”

One morning in July 1999, Purdy said she started to feel weak — and within 24 hours was in the hospital on life support. Both of her lungs had collapsed, and she was given only a 2 percent chance of survival. Doctors discovered her blood had become infected with meningitis, a form of deadly bacteria that attacks the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord. Both of Purdy’s legs had to be amputated below the knee.

“I was in kidney failure. I ended up having a kidney transplant on my 21st birthday,” Purdy said. “I lost my spleen. I lost the hearing in my left ear, so I had a lot of internal organ damage. My legs really at the beginning were the easiest part, believe it or not.”

When she woke up from her coma, Purdy said she knew immediately she had to find a way to get back on her snowboard.

“You have to dig down pretty deep when something like this happens to you,” she said. “I mean, I was just like every other girl, you know. Here I had worked so hard to have a body that’s in shape and that’s healthy, and then suddenly I lose my legs.”

Purdy’s passion, drive and determination had her back on the snowboard just seven months after her life-changing ordeal. At that time, there were no prosthetics that would work for snowboarding, so she and her doctor set about creating one. And she’s gone on to become a world champion.

In 2005, Purdy co-founded a nonprofit company, Adaptive Action Sports, hoping to offer other physically challenged people a chance to experience for themselves what snowboarding has meant for her.

Amy Purdy is a world-class hero and an inspiration to many people.

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.