From Vegas to Sochi to the Stars

The unstoppable journey of Paralympian (and dancer) Amy Purdy

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Photo by Adam Taylor | ABC

Photo by Adam Taylor | ABC

The day after the season’s first episode of Dancing With the Stars aired, I sat down to watch it for a second time. The reason for my repeat viewing was the appearance of former Las Vegan Amy Purdy.

Purdy is a 1998 graduate of Cimarron-Memorial High School. Now 34, beautiful with brown hair and blue eyes, she’d just won a bronze medal in Sochi for snowboarding, and here she was, getting ready to knock out one of my favorite ballroom dances: the cha-cha.

Her performance with dance pro Derek Hough was phenomenal. The two lit up the showroom to One Republic’s “Counting Stars,” and with every twist of Amy’s hips, the gold fringe that ran the length of her dance pants shook and shimmied, creating a whirl of motion that stretched from her waist to her ankles.

Or, nearly to her ankles. You could still see the prosthetic legs she wears—both of her lower legs were amputated in 1999—but that didn’t change the fundamental beauty of the dance: joyous, energetic and rhythmic; nor the personality beaming from Purdy: joyous, energetic and in sync with her life. After Purdy and Hough rocked the ballroom, DWTS judge Carrie Ann Inaba told her, “You’re a beacon of light.”

One day in 1999, the avid hiker and snowboarder felt like she had the flu. Within 24 hours of lying down to rest, she was gravely ill, and a cousin rushed her to Mountain View Hospital. There, she was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. She was given less than a 2 percent chance of survival, and lost her spleen, kidneys and lower legs.

But survive she did, and with the gift of a kidney from her dad, Stef Purdy (who was the executive director of the Helldorado Days committee from 1990-97), she slowly began to thrive. Her dreams of being an Olympic snowboarder were still with her, as were her dreams of living an extraordinary, adventurous life.

“I was absolutely physically and emotionally broken,” Purdy says as she walks the stage in a 2011 Ted Talk. “… and that is when it dawned on me: I didn’t have to be 5-foot-5 anymore! I could be as tall as I wanted! Or as short as I wanted, depending on who I was dating! And if I snowboarded again, my feet aren’t going to get cold. And best of all, I thought, I can make my feet the size of all the shoes on the sales rack.”

With that sense of humor, and that approach to living, it wasn’t long until she was back on the slopes—but not without some memorable moments:

“At one point, I traumatized all the skiers on the chairlift when I fell and my legs—still attached to my snowboard—went flying down the mountain,” she told the Ted Talk crowd. (Fortunately, that didn’t happen at the Paralympics.)

April is National Limb Loss Awareness month, and while I generally dislike the overused proclamations of a month dedicated to this or that, I can get behind this education effort. About 185,000 amputations occur each year in the U.S., according to the Amputee Coalition of America, and nearly 2 million Americans live with the loss of a limb, more than 10 million worldwide. Plus, more veterans are coming home from deployment with limb loss due to IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Moreover, Nevada has not yet adopted Insurance Fairness for Amputees legislation (20 other states have), which stops insurance companies from arbitrarily capping coverage for prosthetic devices.

Confronting the ignorance or stigma surrounding limb loss seems long overdue. And who better than a young woman from Las Vegas to do it?


On Week 2 of Dancing With the Stars, Purdy and Hough performed a wicked swing dance. Before they began, the show aired a prepackaged video about the challenges she’d faced with her prosthetic legs locking up in practice.

“It’s a pretty funny thought to think that my legs could potentially fly off when I’m dancing,” she said, and she laughed.

Then she danced.