“If [other contestants] break a leg they’re out of the competition. But if I break a leg I’ll just get a new one,” she told PEOPLE Monday night at her DWTS debut.
The snowboarder, 34, who lost both legs below the knee at 19 following a life-threatening bout of bacterial meningitis, stunned the judges with her masterful cha-cha, which the jet-lagged athlete delivered just three days after winning the bronze medal at the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Judge Carrie Ann Inaba’s voice broke as she called Purdy a “beacon of light in this room” after her performance with partner Derek Hough. Fellow judge Len Goodman, who warned that she would not be judged differently than any other contestant, also praised the novice dancer.
“You got a bronze medal in the Olympics, you got a gold medal in the cha-cha-cha,” he said.
Purdy’s appearance on the show serves as a powerful role model for people with disabilities, although the Colorado resident seems casually upbeat about her ability to overcome her physical challenges on the slopes – and the dance floor.
“Once I lost my legs and I lost my ankle movement, I had to figure out different ways to [snowboard]. I found that it’s more about using the rest of my body. And with dancing it’s kind of similar,” she says. “We’re figuring out what can we do to accomplish that same movement. It’s just being creative with the situation.”
Fortunately, pro partner Hough doesn’t seem worried – and like Purdy he jokingly sees the upside to her situation.
“We’re going to have these James Bond prosthetics made, where you push a button and a bit of oil squirts out for other dancers,” he says.
“We’ll knock the competition out first,” Purdy adds, although their debut proved they might not need any such trickery to achieve that goal.
• Reporting by MICHELE STUEVEN