Okla. City Bombing Survivor Made a Promise to Herself Under Rubble — Now She’s a CEO: ‘Keep Going’
On the 26th anniversary of the domestic terrorist attack that killed at least 168 people, Amy Downs opens up to PEOPLE about her inspiring “circle of hope”
When Amy Downs thinks back to her younger self, there is one message she wishes she could tell that person: "You're capable of more than you think."
It's a mantra that Downs, 54, has proven to herself time and time again since the Oklahoma City Bombing on April 19, 1995, the 26th anniversary of which falls on Monday.
At the time of the nightmare in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Downs was 28 and working as a bank teller for Federal Employees Credit Union. She tells PEOPLE she had "low confidence in myself," which resulted in her "flunking out" of college and leading a sedentary lifestyle that saw her weight hit 355 lbs.
But after surviving the domestic terrorist attack that killed at least 168 people, Downs vowed to turn her life around. The Yukon, Oklahoma resident says she went on to earn her Masters of Business Administration degree, lose 200 lbs., and compete in a triathlon.
She didn't stop there. Downs wrote her memoir, Hope Is a Verb: My Journey of Impossible Transformation, and became the CEO of the company she worked for during the bombing, now known as Allegiance Credit Union.
Still, Downs insists, "I'm really not special."
"I went through this horrible traumatic event and I started so late in my life trying to get my act together," she tells PEOPLE. "But I feel like if I can do it — which quite honestly, I was pushing 40 by the time I did — then anybody can."
It was December 2017 when Downs was named CEO — and though the job wasn't initially on her radar, she decided to apply because she didn't want to see the company crumble.
"We felt that if our credit union disappeared, it somehow meant the memories of those we lost disappeared as well," she explains. "I know that's not true, but after the bombing, we were all very emotional and it was like, 'We got to keep going. We got to keep this credit union alive.'"
"I was concerned about somebody coming in from the outside and not understanding how much value we placed on culture, which was started by my former boss," she adds. "It's a personal thing of wanting to see us triumph and keep the memories alive. I feel like the best tribute that we can give to those we lost is providing a great place for people to work."
Aside from her professional life, Downs has also stayed true to her personal goals. After competing in the 2017 Ironman, Downs continued to maintain a fitness routine, which has helped her cope with her PTSD stemming from the bombing.
"Sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday," she says. "When it's that time of year, I can feel the emotion just below the surface. There is an edginess and uncomfortableness that starts when we start having spring weather."
"What I've started doing is, in April or even March, I will try to plan something fun," Downs says. "Something to get away from it, check out for a little bit... and that seems to really help me manage through the time period."
This year, Downs chose to participate in a four-day cycling event through South Louisiana called Cycle Zydeco. The touring ride, which took place April 7-12, occurred just four months after Downs underwent a double knee replacement.
"It really is just a total party bike ride. It's very fun and silly, people dress up. They decorate their helmets. It's a blast," she explains. "This was my first cycling event, post-surgery, so my longest day was a 25-mile ride but I was so proud of it."
Downs' focus has also been on her memoir — a project she worked on for years before its March 2020 release.
"It was both horrible and wonderful at the same time," she says of the writing process. "I was struggling over it. I kept feeling the book seemed too much about me and 'look what I did.' I couldn't get comfortable with it because that wasn't the message I wanted to give out."
"But then I read a book called Hope Rising — How the Science of HOPE Can Change Your Life that some researchers out of Oklahoma had written ... they were talking about how hope is simply having an idea that your future is better and brighter than your past and that you actually have a role to play in making it get there," she continues. "When I stumbled across that, I was like, 'That's it.'"
"When you reach a place of healing in your life where you're over the other side, and now you want to turn around and maybe help another person walking through that same journey, to me, that's just beautiful. To me, that is the circle of hope," she adds. "I want people to see that we truly can play a role in making our futures better."
So what's on Downs' radar now? "I want to ride my bike across the United States," she says.
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She also plans to continue living her life to its fullest, just as she had promised herself 26 years ago while laying underneath the building's rubble.
"Realizing the regrets you have when you think you're going to die if you've not lived your life intentionally and with purpose is huge," she explains. "I don't want anyone to ever go through that, and the only way to not do that is to constantly check in with yourself."
"Everybody has dreams, and I think life sometimes has a way of beating us up and squashing those dreams," she continues. "I just encourage people to pull them back out. Don't give up."
"Allow yourself to dream and move in the direction of those dreams," she adds. "And you will look back one day and be like, 'Holy cow, I went from a girl who couldn't pass a math class to becoming a CEO' ... It's slow, but being consistent over time can yield big results, and now I'm like, 'Yeah, I can do anything.'"
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