How Do We Use Our Challenges To Live Beyond Limits?

Jul 18, 2014
Originally published on May 27, 2016 7:08 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Champions.

About Amy Purdy's TEDTalk

Paralympic snowboarder and Dancing With the Stars finalist Amy Purdy tells how losing her legs at age 19 enabled her to achieve more than she ever dreamed.

About Amy Purdy

Paralympic snowboarder and Dancing With the Stars finalist Amy Purdy asks us to take control of our lives — and our limits. After bacterial meningitis took her legs, Purdy struggled with depression, but beat it when she decided to accept her new reality but not her new boundaries.

Today, she is a world champion female adaptive snowboarder and a bronze medalist at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics. In 2005, she co-founded Adaptive Action Sports, a nonprofit dedicated to introducing people with physical challenges to action sports.

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How would you describe yourself?

AMY PURDY: You know, I don't even know how to describe myself anymore (laughing).

RAZ: This is Amy Purdy.

PURDY: I am a snowboarder, and I am a recent dancer on "Dancing With The Stars."

RAZ: And you did so well. I mean, you made it to the finals - to the end.

PURDY: Yeah, I mean, it really was a journey.


TOM BERGERON: Dancing the cha-cha-cha, Amy Purdy and her partner, Derek Hough.

PURDY: Our first dance was a cha-cha.


LEN GOODMAN: Beyond belief.

PURDY: Salsa - love it - so fun. You can do it anywhere.


CARRIE ANN INABA: I swear I felt like I stopped breathing.

PURDY: We did a rumba, which is very sensual.





PURDY: The Tango...


BERGERON: Dancing the Argentine Tango.

PURDY: ...Which, I absolutely love it.


BRUNO TONIOLI: Totally spellbinding. I feel like I'm in a trance.

RAZ: And you were, like, kind of the underdog.

PURDY: For me, I was up against people who had their legs (laughing).

RAZ: Amy was actually used to competing in the Paralympics as a snowboarder. But to be dancing on national television, where her prosthetic legs had nothing to do with the competition, was totally different.

PURDY: I had to keep reminding myself as I went on throughout the weeks that this is pretty unbelievable.

RAZ: Just a few weeks before she was on the show, Amy won a bronze medal at the Sochi Paralympics.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Amy Purdy has a bronze. She's smiling. She can take it as easy as she likes...

RAZ: Amy started snowboarding when she 14. But five years later, the sport she'd loved suddenly became very different for her. What do you remember about getting sick?

PURDY: I actually remember waking up feeling great that day. I remember the cold tile in my parents' house under my feet but, you know, not thinking anything of it, of course. That's just a memory I had - but getting ready, going to work and I felt exhausted. And I was thinking, maybe I'm coming down with the flu or something. But the next morning, my mom called to check on me and I said gosh, I feel like I'm dying.

But I got to say, I'm known for being the dramatic one in the family. I'm - I'd probably - I still say that when I get a flu. I'm like, I'm pretty sure I'm dying. So I said, I feel like I'm dying, and she said, well, you're probably dehydrated. Make sure just to drink water, and I'm sure you'll be fine. And we got off the phone, and I fell into the deepest sleep that I have ever felt.

All of a sudden, I open my eyes, and as I was sitting up, I realized that something was really, really wrong. My heart was beating out of my chest. I was nauseous. I was sweating. I had chills. And I scooted to the edge of the bed. And I put my feet on the floor, and I stood up. And I realized that I couldn't feel my feet. And I looked down at the floor, and I saw that my feet were purple. And I saw that my hands were purple, and I saw that my nose, my chin, my cheeks were all purple as well. Right then, my cousin walked in. My mom had called her to come check on me. And she ended up rushing me to the hospital.

RAZ: Amy picks up the rest of the story in her TED Talk.


PURDY: I was in the hospital on life support with less than a 2 percent chance of living. It wasn't until days later, as I lay in a coma, that the doctors diagnosed me with bacterial meningitis - a vaccine-preventable blood infection. Over the course of two and a half months, I lost my spleen, my kidneys, the hearing in my left ear and both of my legs below the knee. When my parents wheeled me out of the hospital, I felt like I had been pieced back together like a patchwork doll.

I was absolutely physically and emotionally broken. But I knew that in order to move forward, I had to let go of the old Amy and learn to embrace the new Amy. And I begin to daydream. I daydreamed like I did as a little girl. And I imagined myself walking gracefully and snowboarding again. And I didn't just see myself carving down a mountain of powder. I could actually feel it. I could feel the wind against my face and the beat of my racing heart as if it were happening in that very moment. And that is when a new chapter in my life began.

RAZ: Amy Purdy's story continues in a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And today on the show, the making of a champion. And before the break, we were hearing the story of Amy Purdy. She was 19 when she lost both of her legs below the knee. Meningitis nearly killed her. But at the time, Amy was just grateful to be alive.

PURDY: Because I knew how bad it was. I knew how close I was to dying. And I also knew that it could have been worse because I almost lost my hands as well. I almost lost my nose. So my nose turned black. My fingers turned black. My feet turned black. So, you know, preparing yourself to lose all these things and then only losing my legs was, for me, a blessing.

RAZ: Amy was fitted with a pair of prosthetic legs. They were these bulky blocks of metal with pipes that were bolted together for the ankles. And the feet were made out of yellow rubber. But still...

PURDY: I loved snowboarding, and it's kind of all I could think about as soon as I started to get kind of healthy enough to, you know, not be in survival mode. I - and this is still in the hospital bed - all I would think about was snowboarding and, OK, how am I going to do this again? I never questioned, am I going to do this again? I just thought, how am I going to do this again?


PURDY: Four months later, I was back up on a snowboard, although things didn't go quite as expected. My knees and my ankles wouldn't bend, and at one point, I traumatized all the skiers on the chair lift when...


PURDY: ...I fell and my legs, still attached to my snowboard...


PURDY: ...Went flying down the mountain.


PURDY: And I was on top of the mountain still. I was so shocked. I was just as shocked as everybody else. And I was so discouraged, but I knew that if I could find the right pair of feet, that I would be able to do this again. And this is when I learned that our borders and our obstacles can only do two things. One - stop us in our tracks, or two - force us to get creative. I did a year of research, still couldn't figure out what kind of legs to use, couldn't find any resources that could help me. So I decided to make a pair myself.

My leg-maker and I put random parts together, and we made a pair of feet that I could snowboard in - rusted bolts, rubber, wood and neon-pink duct tape. And yes, I can change my toenail polish. It was these legs and the best 21st birthday gift I could ever receive - a new kidney from my dad - that allowed me to follow my dreams again. And just this past February, I won two back-to-back World Cup gold medals...


PURDY: ...Which made me the highest-ranked adaptive female snowboarder in the world. Eleven years ago, when I lost my legs, I had no idea what to expect. But if you asked me today if I would ever want to change my situation, I would have to say no because my legs haven't disabled me. If anything, they've enabled me. They forced me to believe in the possibilities. And that's why I believe that our imaginations can be used as tools for breaking through borders because in our minds we can do anything, and we can be anything. It's believing in those dreams and facing our fears head-on that allows us to live our lives beyond our limits. So the thought that I would like to challenge you with today is that maybe instead of looking at our challenges and our limitations as something negative or bad, we can begin to look at them as blessings - magnificent gifts that can be used to ignite our imaginations and help us go further than we ever knew we could go. It's not about breaking down borders. It's about pushing off of them and seeing what amazing places they might bring us.

RAZ: I know it's - it might sound like a weird question, but, I mean, you've won all of these medals and you're sort of, like, this elite athlete and - I don't know - in, like, a weird way, do you almost feel like you're a better snowboarder now, like, after everything that happened to you?

PURDY: I wouldn't necessarily say that I'm better at snowboarding now. I am. I am. But it's still very challenging for me because my feet don't move the right way. I think I'm better because I work harder at it, and I'm passionate about it. And it becomes a challenge, and I thrive on challenge. The amount of work that I have put into my legs and snowboarding - the amount that have gone into the development of my feet and my legs and the mechanics is crazy amounts of work. And the motivation just comes from - I guess it just comes from wanting to figure it out, like finding a way. And that's kind of how I go into everything. It's like I just don't like to hear that things are impossible.

RAZ: When you compete, is a part of it to win, to be victorious?

PURDY: Yeah, but, you know, it's interesting because I don't necessarily find myself being really competitive with other people. I'm more very competitive with myself because as of right now, I'm the only international, like, male and female competitive snowboarder with two prosthetic legs. So it's just doing the absolute best that I can because it's fulfilling. It's fulfilling to me to find out what those limitations are or to blow through the limitations that you thought you had.

You know, we put so much on ourselves. We put so many limits on ourselves, it's unbelievable. I'm always, like, realizing, wow, so much of what I thought, you know - oh, my legs don't really do that, they don't do this, they don't do that - I ended up doing it and realizing, wow, it was in my head the entire time.

RAZ: What is it, like - what's that thing that's inside of you that, like, drives you, that pushes you, that motivates you? I mean, is there something that you have that most of us don't?

PURDY: I don't think so. I mean, if somebody would've told me, you know, when I was 18 years old that, OK, this is what your life is going to be like; you're going to have the world at your fingertips and then - bam, you're going to lose your legs, lose your kidneys, lose your spleen, lose the hearing in your left ear, you know, stuck in a wheelchair, you know, I would've said there's absolutely no way that I would be able to handle that - no way.

I mean, I actually remember - and this is horrible - but this is just kind of what I think a teenager thinks about. I remember hearing about a kid who had lost his legs when I was in high school and thinking, oh, if I lost my legs, I would get myself in a wheelchair, and I'd wheel myself off a cliff (laughing). Like, that was my thinking as a teenager - that that would be the worst thing in the world that I would have to, you know, take my own life or something. So then to be in this situation and handle it, it makes me feel like anybody would. You know, you don't know how strong you are until you're forced to find it - until you're forced to use it.

RAZ: Amy Purdy, champion. Check out her full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.