Amy Purdy in all her glory

ESPN The Magazine 2014 Body Issue: Amy Purdy (1:48)

Go behind the scenes on the making of ESPN The Magazine's 2014 Body Issue featuring snowboarder Amy Purdy. (1:48)

I think we can all choose if we want to be disabled or not. There are plenty of people who have legs who are way more disabled than me.

It wasn't a mission: "I'm going to inspire the world!" It was just kind of figuring it out on my own what's possible, but certainly through that process I've been able to inspire other people to challenge themselves.

I really didn't consider myself an athlete until about a year and a half ago. I did snowboard in some competitions -- World Cups here and there -- and I was successful at those. But it wasn't until I decided to completely dedicate myself to snowboarding and making the national team that I for the first time felt like an athlete.

I was 19 years old, and I felt like I had the flu one day. Within 24 hours, I was in the hospital on life support, and I was given less than a 2 percent chance of living. It took five days for the doctors to find out that I had contracted bacterial meningitis. I ended up losing my legs below the knees from septic shock. But I have to say that if I had not gone through that experience, I certainly wouldn't be where I'm at today.

I was in a coma for I think about two and a half weeks. They put me on life support, and then I was put into an induced coma. It felt like I was hanging on by my fingertips on a cliff, like literally hanging on by a thread, that's how it felt. It felt like if I just relaxed for one second then I would go.

"I'm over having people feel sorry for me." That was my attitude going into the [amputation] surgery. "Do what you have to do so I can get out of here and get on with my life."

Of course, there are benefits to having prosthetics. I can make myself as tall as I want. I can wear flip-flops in the snow if I wanted to. There's benefits.

When I lost my legs, the first question I had was: Am I going to be able to snowboard again? I never looked back and said "why me?" I kind of went on this mission to figure out how to do it again and what kind of legs I needed. And ended up putting together a pair of feet just out of random pieces that allowed my ankles to bend the right way so I could snowboard again.

I got up on a snowboard about seven months after I lost my legs. Although I was still very sick -- I was still 83 pounds, I still had kidney failure. But I haven't ever missed a season of snowboarding, and I made it a goal that I wasn't going to miss that season whether I lost my legs or not.

I have a very good sense of my body and where it's at. Although I don't feel the ground in the same way that somebody else would, I'm very aware ... I can feel pressure and I know exactly where my toes are and exactly where my heel is. I have a more heightened awareness of my body and the body positions that I put myself in that make my snowboard react in a certain way. I think that's why I was actually as successful as I was with "Dancing With the Stars," because I already had this good awareness and sense of my body and how it moved.

There is nothing as dynamic as the human foot. Even with the best high-tech prosthetics out there, you're still on one piece of carbon fiber, versus having 150 bones and muscles and ligaments in your feet that do all of your balancing and shock-absorbing. With snowboarding, my feet are still nowhere near as dynamic as my feet used to be when I had feet.

What I love about my body, especially right now, is just how strong it is. I've felt that contrast of it being as weak and vulnerable as it could be. When I was in the hospital and I lost my legs -- to go from that to feeling stronger than ever, and knowing the strength of my body has been what's gotten me to where I'm at today, as far as the Paralympics and "Dancing With the Stars" goes -- I'm so proud of how healthy I am.

I had my leg manufacturer on speed dial. Each week [on "DWTS"] we were overnighting different types of feet to try them and see if they worked better for the dance that we were doing. No matter how challenging it was ... there were definitely times when I thought, "I don't know if I can do this. But I'm not giving up." And eventually, we'd figure it out.

Sometimes you have to be scared sh--less to know what you're really made of. So much that I've put myself into, Paralympics, "Dancing With the Stars" ... throwing myself into those things that I can't say that I'm 100 percent confident in doing. But the best way to figure it out is to jump in feetfirst and do it.

I really can't rely on my feet. I have to rely on the rest of my body to accomplish whatever goal I'm setting out to achieve. On "DWTS," we did a dance called the jive, which is a lot of jumping, you move your feet really fast, you're kicking your legs and you are moving really fast, and I was wearing feet that were basically blocks of wood. But I relied on my hip flexors and my abs to pull my feet off the ground, versus jumping off the ground. We did it for six hours a day. I'll tell you what, I lost a couple pounds for sure!

It's funny, some of the most challenging moves were just standing still. We did a contemporary dance in Week 3, and there was a move in there where [Derek Hough and I] stood side by side. The amount of core strength that it took to just stand still without moving around was just incredible. We were doing all these other beautiful moves and lifts, and the hardest part was just standing still.

I eat A LOT! And I eat as often as possible to fuel my body. Training for the Paralympics, I honestly just brought in as many calories as I could; I would say definitely every hour I was eating.

I was really, really proud of myself physically that I was able to do it. I did this aerial move [on "Dancing With the Stars"] where I went up on this rope. When we went into aerial school and told them what we were thinking, the instructor said, "OK, it's going to take a couple of weeks because of the extremely advanced moves. And Derek was like, 'Well, we have 30 minutes.'"

I will say this: I've learned that your mind gives up way before your body does.

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