Amy Purdy’s Story: From Paralympian to Dancing with the Stars

Amy Purdy Sochi Paralympics
Photo: Joe Kusumoto / U.S. Paralympics

If you think it’s too late in life for you to start playing sports, Amy Purdy’s story might make you rethink everything.

In 1999, at age 19, Purdy contracted a deadly strain of bacterial meningitis, which ravaged her body and necessitated below-the-knee amputations of both of her legs. After slowly recovering from the often-fatal illness, and undergoing a kidney transplant two years after her initial diagnosis, Purdy decided to challenge herself to get back into her favorite sport: snowboarding.

Though she’d been hitting the slopes since age 15, Purdy says she never considered herself an “athlete.” But after her illness, she recommitted herself to the sport — and decided to start entering snowboarding competitions. In 2005, Purdy founded Adaptive Action Sports (ADACS), a non-profit to help adaptive athletes get involved in skateboarding, snowboarding and other sports. Through ADACS, Purdy worked to get snowboarding into the Paralympics — and earlier this year, she won a bronze medal in the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Winter Games.

Purdy wasn’t done after the Paralympics, either. Not long after tearing it up in Sochi, she was offered a spot on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. Competing on two prosthetic legs, Purdy made history as the first double amputee to ever compete on the show. Even better: She and partner Derek Hough finished as runners-up to champion Meryl Davis.

RELATED: 5 Minutes with Meryl Davis, Olympian and Dancing with the Stars Champ

Now, Purdy is on a speaking tour with Oprah (yes, Oprah), travelling around the country dispensing advice to thousands. DailyBurn caught up with the 32-year-old athlete at last week’s Women’s Sports Foundation’s 35th Annual Salute to Women in Sports. Read on to learn how she fits in fitness while travelling with the talk show legend, and why she considers Dancing with the Stars “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Amy Purdy Talks Paralympics and Dancing with the Stars

Amy Purdy Sochi Paralympics
Photo: Joe Kusumoto / U.S. Paralympics

What kind of workouts do you like to do in your off-season? 

You know, it’s so intense in the on-season that I think I’m just enjoying outdoor stuff. I live up in the mountains, and I love to road cycle, mountain bike, and do quite a bit of CrossFit, actually…I’m always mixing it up. But I travel a lot so that it makes it pretty hard!

How do you fit in workouts when you’re on the road?

Honestly, it’s been so hard. In a way, I’ve had to kind of just commit and be OK with the fact that I’m not going to be working out at the same level that I used to. I’m mostly doing bodyweight workouts, so sit-ups, push-ups, squats and lunges. And you can do that in a hotel room, so I try my best to do that until I can get back on track.

“We trained for six hours a day, seven days a week for three months straight.”

What do you eat when you’re trying to be super healthy? And what do go for when you’re in splurge mode?

You know, it just depends on what I’m doing. When I’m training for snowboarding, or training for the Paralympics, I’m usually trying to build a lot of muscle, so I eat a lot of protein, and also a lot of fat and carbs.

But then when I was doing Dancing with the Stars, I just needed energy. So I ate a lot of carbs, more carbs than I ever would have eaten. Since all of that has ended, I’m now [eating] veggies and proteins and that’s it — I cut down the carbs, cut out the sugar.

When I do splurge…I’m not a fast food person, but if it’s pastries or good donuts, I’ll indulge in quality, fattening foods!

What was Dancing With the Stars like? How did it compare to your regular training in terms of difficulty?

It was so much harder than I thought! It was honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. We trained for six hours a day, seven days a week for three months straight, making it all the way to the end. And it was endurance the whole time, so that’s why I said we’d be eating bagels and all these carbs, which I’m not used to. But that’s really what I needed to fuel myself with to get through those long days. I got stronger than I ever could have imagined by the end of that — it was incredible. It was brutal, but the payoff was amazing.

RELATED: Dancing with the Stars’ Mark Ballas: Fit For TV

Are you still doing much dancing now that the competition is over?

I’m trying to do as much as I can. Here and there I’m able to, but I’ve been so busy! I’m currently on a speaking tour with Oprah. We’re going to eight different cities, so I’ve been traveling ever since [Dancing with the Stars] ended. As soon as it slows down, I think I’ll be able to get in and try to dance a little bit more.

Before a competition, or even a speaking event, how do you get yourself in the zone?

Sometimes, I’m just not energized, or tired, or not feeling it, and so I try to get myself pumped up or a little nervous even. I’ll walk around yelling at myself, kind of smacking my [arms], just trying to wake myself up and get excited.

With Dancing With the Stars, that’s what Derek [Hough] and I would do! I’m surprised the audience didn’t hear us, because we’d be walking down the halls yelling to pump ourselves up. There were also times I’d find myself getting really nervous and I’d need to channel that somewhere. I just try to turn [nervousness] into excitement. I try to say, “I’m nervous, but that means I’m excited and that’s the direction I’m going to go with these nerves.”

Who are some athletes you look up to?

There weren’t a lot of snowboarders [when I was growing up]. There wasn’t snowboarding in the Olympics! And honestly, I didn’t look up to any female athletes growing up. I was never an athlete. To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel like an athlete until two years ago. I’ve snowboarded my whole life, but when I decided to focus on being the best competitor I could be [not long ago], that’s when I became an athlete. I didn’t connect with sports until I was in my 20s.

RELATED: Jamie Andersen: Fast on the Slopes, Zen on the Mat

What advice do you have for other people who are trying to get into sports later in life?

That’s the thing that’s interesting; there aren’t many of us. I think a lot of athletes are involved in their sport as a young kid, whereas I started quite late. It’s just such a confidence booster, figuring out what you’re capable of — making goals, reaching those goals, pushing yourself and feeling the exhilaration and adrenaline of competing. Accomplishing goals that you’re in control of — that’s what sports have given me. I’d like to share that feeling with others by encouraging them to get involved, too.

To keep up with Amy Purdy, follow her on Twitter and Facebook, or catch her on Oprah’s “The Life You Want” tour this fall.  

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