KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Amy Purdy is ready to make history at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games on Friday in the first-ever women’s snowboard cross event, if only she can survive the toe side turns of the inaugural competition. A simple move for most world-class snowboarders, a toe side turn is a turn on the edge of the snowboard that is in front of the rider’s toes.
But Purdy is not most world-class snowboarders. In 1999, when she was just 19 years old, she contracted bacterial meningitis and had less than a two percent chance of living. She was able to survive the infection, but lost both of her legs below the knee and would later require a kidney from her father the week before her 21st birthday.
Purdy is a world-class snowboarder with prosthetic legs and feet.
She controls her riding mostly with her hips.
Still, Purdy is ranked No. 2 in the world in women’s snowboard cross for athletes with a lower limb impairment, tied with teammate Heidi Jo Duce. Both are racing for the first-ever snowboarding gold medal on March 14 in Sochi, Russia.
“Having two prosthetic legs, it is really hard to be dynamic on a snowboard,” she said. “I have to set my legs either bent or straight and my legs have that the whole time. For me, bent and straight doesn’t work, and I can’t adjust mid-race. I have to find the perfect in between set up for everything. It’s easy to think as I’m going around toe side turns, my toes are not doing what I want them to, and just getting frustrated. It’s easy for me to start thinking in the middle of the race that a bad toe side turn will put me behind.”
Purdy tried to better her toe side turns by trying out new feet during the 2014 International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing Para-Snowboard World Cup in Copper Mountain, Colo. She finished off the podium.
“My feet tend to collapse a little bit when I do toe side turns,” she said. “I tried these new feet that I loved off of the course. Once I got on the course, they were not set up at all for what I was trying to accomplish, and it put me really far behind in those two world cups. I had to make the decision to go back to my old feet.”
She has old feet but new habits ― like focusing on what she does well, including flats, jumps and rollers.
“I have to remember that my feet aren’t going to snowboard for me so I have to use everything else that I have to do the best that I can do,” Purdy said. “Focusing on all of the positives has helped me come out with really, really good times this year. In all the races where I’ve won silver, I’ve separated myself from the other girls significantly. That’s something that has really built a lot of confidence as I head into Sochi.”
Purdy is a favorite for a medal, behind Netherlands’ Bibian Mentel, a former Olympic hopeful who has never been defeated in para-snowboard. Teammates Duce and Nicole Roundy, also ranked in the top-five in the world, are also medal contenders.
“It’s really cool to be a part of this team,” she said. “There are three of us that are riding really strong and that’s more than any other country. It’s really exciting. It’s also cool because Heidi, Nicole and I have different abilities. On the men’s side, our top three riders are all single, below the knee amputees. On the women’s side, we’re very different.”
Like men’s favorites Keith Gabel, Mike Shea and Evan Strong, Duce is a single below the knee amputee. Roundy has an above the knee amputation.
“It’s awesome to be able to challenge each other,” she said. “Everyone has a different style, which makes it really interesting for us. Sometimes my style is better. Sometimes Heidi’s style is better. Sometimes Nicole’s style is better. You never know what the course likes until you ride it, so that keeps it exciting for us as athletes. When a course is better for someone else, it makes you want to ride that much better. I think the course in Sochi has a perfect mix to show what we’re all capable of. It will be really exciting.”
The course in Sochi is longer than most the athletes have competed on this year. But Purdy believes that the times will be fast, including hers.
“I absolutely think the course in Sochi is one I could do well on,” she said. “There are a lot of jumps, a lot of flats and some heel side turns, which are my strengths. I’m really looking forward to it.”
The medalists will be the first-ever in snowboarding, which was added to the alpine skiing program in May 2012.
“My goal is to go out there and do the best that I can do,” Purdy said. “I want to put into play everything that I’ve learned this year. To be able to leave here and know I did my absolute best, that’s huge. Of course, I want to get on the podium, and that’s what my ultimate goal is. A medal is why I am working so hard.”
And she would like a Mirror Ball Trophy to go with her Paralympic Winter Games hardware.
Just hours after completing her race, and hopefully standing on the podium, Purdy will leave Sochi for Los Angeles to tape Dancing with the Stars. On March 17, she will become the first U.S. Paralympian to compete on the show.
“It’s a whirlwind but the support I have received is incredible,” Purdy said.