From Tragedy to Triumph (And Everything in Between)

Jenna Kutcher 

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November 26, 2018


She is a three-time medalist and the most decorated Paralympic snowboarder in US history. Amy Purdy defied the odds throughout her life to accomplish some extraordinary things. Despite fighting for her life and losing both of her legs below the knees at the age of 19, her passion for living without limits carried her not only to the upper levels of athletics but onto the dance floor of Hollywood and well, well beyond.

She is a NY Times best-selling author, a highly requested international motivational speaker, and has toured with none other than Oprah Winfrey to packed arenas across the country. Not to mention, Amy was the runner-up on the ABC hit show Dancing with the Stars with her partner Derek Hough, and she went on to dance in front of hundreds of millions of viewers during the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. She has inspired millions of people through her TED talk, motivational speeches and social media platforms with her “Live Inspired” message.

I’m so inspired by Amy. When she went through one of the most traumatizing events I can imagine, she came out victorious on the other side — but I know it couldn’t have been easy. How do we handle hard things, find the positives in a difficult situation, and cope with “losing” the career we planned on? In this episode, Amy shares what she *really* means when she wants you to LIVE INSPIRED. This one’s a tear jerker… in the best way.

Amy’s Story

Amy fell in love with snowboarding at 15-years old while living in Las Vegas. She learned to ski first, but she wasn’t very good at it. When she started high school and began questioning where she fit into the world (and while living in her sister’s shadow), she realized that she wasn’t meant to do all the same things her sister did like cheerleading and tennis and dance. Amy turned to art and photography, and started a painting class where she met a group of skateboarders who took her snowboarding. She fell in love with the sport and from that point forward she knew snowboarding would be part of her life forever.

Her love for travel and snowboarding on mountains around the world carried her through after high school. Amy studied massage because she knew the field would allow her to travel and work anywhere in the world. She loved massage and how it made people feel. Amy thought she’d figured out a path for her life — massage and travel and snowboarding. But at just 19, her life took a complete detour.

Amy moved back to Las Vegas where she was hired at a top spa, and she loved her work. She told her mom she felt like she was on top of the world. But one day, she started to feel a little sick and her energy level was really low. Her back and neck were achy. She had a high fever for the night, but the next morning it broke… Until she started to feel worse. She fell into a deep sleep and couldn’t wake herself up until she heard a voice telling her to get up and look in the mirror. Incredibly weak, heart beating out of her chest, Amy struggled to stand but eventually found herself staring in the mirror. Her feet, hands, nose, and chin had turned purple.

“In that moment, I knew that I was dying.”

Amy’s was rushed to the hospital and put on life support and into a medically induced coma. She was given a 2% chance of living. The diagnosis: Meningococcal Meningitis.

She still has no idea how she got it. It’s a common bacteria, but getting it into your bloodstream is not common, as in Amy’s case. Amy lost her kidney function, her spleen, both of her legs below the knees, and the hearing in her left ear.

Goal Setting Through Tragedy

How do you even begin to move forward after such sudden tragedy? Amy says it’s amazing how you put things into perspective in moments of tragedy. Yes, Amy lost her legs below the knee, but she was very close to losing her hands and even parts of her face. When she woke from the induced coma, she said she felt so grateful to have only lost what she did.

Amy had always been big on goal setting, and that practice helped her get through her darkest days. Even as she was being wheeled into the operating room to have both of her legs amputated, she set three goals for herself.

One, she was not going to feel sorry for herself. Two, when she figured out how to navigate her new life, she would find a way to help other people. And three, she was going to snowboard again that season because she hadn’t missed a single season since she started. When she woke up from her surgery those were the only thoughts in her mind. Amy had something to chase and to look forward to versus looking back and getting caught in a cycle of “Why me?”

So many times we want to hide our struggles, but Amy turned her tragedy into a platform to help others. She reached out to people, especially women with prosthetic legs, and listened to their stories and how they were dealing with the change. Her desire to connect to help her own journey, has helped her create a platform to help others through their journey.

You’re More Than What Happens to You

People tend to take a piece of your journey and project that as the whole story, but that’s simply not true. Especially in Amy’s case. There are still moments when Amy’s tragedy, her disability, and the sudden illness that altered her life is the only thing people focus on when speaking to her. But she’s more than that. Amy never viewed herself as disabled; she viewed herself as a human who still had big dreams, she just needed to get creative with how she accomplished them.

When she walks down the street with her two prosthetic legs, she wonders what people might think. Some approach her and talk about how sad it must’ve been to lose her legs. But Amy wishes they knew all that’s gone into her life today:

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if this didn’t happen to me. Where I’m at today is absolutely beautiful. I get to follow my dreams and travel the world. I’m living my dreams. I have the career of my dreams. I’ve worked my way up and accomplished so many different things in my life. I want other people to think they can do that as well… I wanted them to think ‘If she can do this, than I can do this.’”

Dancing with the Stars

In this episode, Amy dives into her experience (and runner-up title!) on Dancing with the Stars. Did you know she was balancing half the day snowboarding and training, and the other half training with her dance partner Derek Hough? How did she balance it all? How did her compartmentalizing skills help her achieve access in both areas? How did she adapt to the challenges of dancing with her prosthetic legs? And the big question… What was more nerve-wracking: Dancing with the Stars or Sochi?

Her TedX Talk

Amy knew from the moment she lost her legs that she wanted to share the story with others. She started by visiting her old high school to speak. At the time she didn’t really know what she was doing, she just started.

Her husband introduced her to Ted Talks and she thought it would be amazing to do one someday (you know, when she was older and felt she had lived and had something to talk about…) All of the sudden she was invited to speak at a TedX conference after one of the organizers saw her speak at an event.

Amy was excited, but said, “It was overwhelming to round 30 years of life down into an eight minute talk.” She was so focused on the talk that her boyfriend (now husband) wouldn’t hear from her for days at a time. Amy wrote so much she felt like she was writing a novel… And she hated everything she put on the page. She worked and reworked and despite the frustration and the challenge, she kept pushing. When her mom asked why she was putting herself through such a struggle, Amy knew it was because she was committed to achieving this huge dream and putting the hard work in to accomplish something amazing.

Because of her hard work, her Ted Talk went viral and changed the course of her life forever. It is still shared across the world, and used in high schools to teach speech and public speaking to students.

Amy remembers the moment before she walked on stage to give her talk. She had been working with a speech coach provided by Ted, and she turned to her coach and said, “I don’t know if I can do this. What if I cry?” Her coach said that if she cries, it’s because she feels something, and so her audience will cry and feel something to. The most important part is to go out on stage and be herself. She was so vulnerable in her talk, and let her voice crack, and did not stand in front of the audience pretending she knew it all. Amy connect with the audience through her vulnerabilities.

When Amy’s Ted Talk was posted on the Ted homepage, that’s when things really changed. The next morning she received a ton of invitations to speak… And she took them all because she didn’t want to miss an opportunity that may not come around again. But with the opportunities came an immense amount of pressure “to be inspiring”. In this episode, Amy dives into why she decided to take a break from speaking after that year and get back into competitive snowboarding before returning to the speaking circuit.

More from This Episode

All in one year Amy won a bronze medal in Sochi, landed the runner-up spot on Dancing with the Stars, wrote a book with a six week deadline, booked a speaking tour with OPRAH, got engaged, and then got married. She’s got a non-profit organization, a booked schedule of speeches, and she’s weighing how she will make snowboarding a part of her life without competing… Is your jaw on the floor? Amy discusses it all, and shares what’s next for her in this episode, so you gotta tune in!



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Photo by Julianne O’Neill

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Before you get any further... Hi! I'm Jenna Kutcher!

A small town Minnesota photographer, podcaster, educator and puppy rescuer, my happiest days are spent behind my computer screen sharing my secrets with the world. I'm glad you're here.

I’m an expert at online marketing, a nerd when it comes to the numbers, and my obsession is teaching others how to make a living doing what they love (without it taking over their life). 

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