How to tackle a challenge, according to a Paralympian

Take the first step.
Take the first step.
Image: AP Photo/Mauro Pimentel
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You know that thing on your to-do list? The one you haven’t gotten to because it’s too complicated, or too hard, or too frightening to face?

Amy Purdy had a thing like that, too. Purdy wanted to surf. She’s already a decorated snowboarder, but surfing is a different game. It takes upper-body strength, balance, and stamina. Wipeouts can be gruesome.

“I had a lot of concerns,” Purdy said this week at the Milken Institute 2018 Global Conference in Los Angeles. “Are my legs going to come off? Are my feet going to rust?”

Oh yeah—that too.

Purdy is a double amputee. In 1998, at the age of 19, Purdy lost a kidney and both legs to bacterial meningitis. Her resume since has been a mind-boggling record of achievement, innovation, and sheer force of will. An avid snowboarder prior to her illness, Purdy built her own pair of specially adapted legs to return to the sport. (The pair are currently with the Smithsonian Institution, Purdy said.) She has since won three Paralympic snowboarding medals, written a memoir, founded a non-profit, and been a finalist on “Dancing With the Stars.”

What Purdy had not yet done was try surfing, a sport that can be difficult to master even in an unmodified body.

“I had all these reasons why not to do it. Then this weekend I was in Hawaii and thought, ‘I’m just going to do it,’” Purdy said. She covered her prosthetic legs with electrical tape and taped new soles to the bottom of the feet that would adhere better to the board. She practiced the belly-to-feet leap on land, as all new surfers do, before getting in the water. Then she went out there and surfed.

“Second try I was up on my board. I did it, and it was so empowering. This whole time I’d stopped myself,” Purdy said.

To be human, as my colleague once wrote, is to procrastinate. But to feel human—to feel alive, more accurately—you have to eventually stop procrastinating and try the thing you’ve stopped yourself from doing.

So, your thing? Go do it. Surf’s up.