While other contestants are training in L.A. Purdy is learning to cha-cha while competing for a gold medal in Sochi

By Monica Rizzo
Updated March 13, 2014 08:00 AM
Credit: Courtesy of Amy Purdy

Being on Dancing with the Stars was the furthest thing from snowboarder Amy Purdy‘s mind several months ago. Thoughts of dancing on television’s most popular ballroom floor took a back seat to training and competing.

But then Purdy, 34, thought, ‘Why not?’ It’s that type of attitude, after all, that helped the double amputee become a world champion in her sport and an inspiration to many.

“It’s been so crazy,” Purdy tells PEOPLE of the past three weeks training for DWTS with partner Derek Hough and training for the Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Before she sets her sights on the ballroom’s famed mirror ball trophy, Purdy is going for gold on Friday in the boardercross competition.

“I did four world cups this year, my fourth was in Spain and I got a silver medal,” Purdy explains. “I flew home to Colorado and spent a week at training camp with the U.S. team, then I met Derek for the first time. I got to see him for two days, then I flew to Sochi.”

Hough, 28, caught up with Purdy in Russia a few days later. Since then, the two have managed to carve out “two to four hours” of training each night for the past week, Purdy says, noting that that’s after she’s gotten in a morning workout, followed by three to four hours of snowboarding on the mountain, and either massage therapy or physical therapy in the athlete’s village. “Then I get out of my snowboard legs, put on my walking/dancing legs and head down to meet with Derek and dance.”

Getting the opportunity to do anything, let alone snowboarding or dancing, is something doctors felt Purdy wouldn’t be able to do after she fell ill at age 19 with bacterial meningitis.

“When I was 19 I was really healthy. I worked out every day, I was a massage therapist,” Purdy explains. “I got sick one day with flu-like symptoms. Within 24 hours I was in the hospital on life-support and I was given a less than two percent chance of living.”

Purdy’s body went into septic shock and she lost circulation to her legs, which both had to be amputated. She also went into kidney failure and two years later, she received a kidney transplant (her father was the donor) on her 21st birthday.

“I was literally pieced back together in order to survive,” Purdy says, noting that people ask her all the time if she wishes she could change things back to the way they were. “I say no. I absolutely live the life of my dreams. I got this second chance at life and I live it.”

Embracing challenges as they arise is part and parcel for Purdy, who can’t wait to “clean up” and dance in front of a live audience. “The last two years I’ve been focusing on being an athlete. Before snowboarding I did a lot of modeling and acting. I always kept myself up really nice.”

But lately, “I’ve literally been living in workout clothes and snowboard pants and snowboard boots every day,” Purdy says. “I could not be more excited to get all glammed up.”

And dance.

“We’re doing the cha-cha,” Purdy says. “It’s a fast one! I was thinking, ‘Oh, maybe they’ll give us something really easy because they know how hard I’m working out here.’ Nope! I wish we had more time so I could have gotten more comfortable with it.”

“All the other teams have had three to four weeks to work on this first dance and Derek and I will have had five half-days,” says Purdy, who’s daunted but not discouraged.

“The more we’re together, the more I realize how blessed I am to be with such an amazing dancer. He’s so fun and funny. We will do what we can with what we’ve got – and with smiles on our faces.”

The new season of Dancing with the Stars premieres Monday, March 17 at 8 p.m. on ABC.