If your life were a book and you were the author, how would you want your story to go? That's the question that changed my life forever. Growing up in the hot Last Vegas desert, all I wanted was to be free. I would daydream about traveling the world, living in a place where it snowed, and I would picture all of the stories that I would go on to tell.
At the age of 19, the day after I graduated high school, I moved to a place where it snowed and I became a massage therapist. With this job all I needed were my hands and my massage table by my side and I could go anywhere. For the first time in my life, I felt free, independent and completely in control of my life. That is, until my life took a detour. I went home from work early one day with what I thought was the flu, and less than 24 hours later I was in the hospital on life support with less than a two percent chance of living. It wasn't until days later as I lay in a coma that the doctors diagnosed me with bacterial meningitis, a vaccine-preventable blood infection. Over the course of two and a half months I lost my spleen, my kidneys, the hearing in my left ear and both of my legs below the knee.
When my parents wheeled me out of the hospital I felt like I had been pieced back together like a patchwork doll. I thought the worst was over until weeks later when I saw my new legs for the first time. The calves were bulky blocks of metal with pipes bolted together for the ankles and a yellow rubber foot with a raised rubber line from the toe to the ankle to look like a vein. I didn't know what to expect, but I wasn't expecting that.
With my mom by my side and tears streaming down our faces, I strapped on these chunky legs and I stood up. They were so painful and so confining that all I could think was, how am I ever going to travel the world in these things? How was I ever going to live the life full of adventure and stories, as I always wanted? And how was I going to snowboard again?
That day, I went home, I crawled into bed and this is what my life looked like for the next few months: me passed out, escaping from reality, with my legs resting by my side. I was absolutely physically and emotionally broken.
But I knew that in order to move forward, I had to let go of the old Amy and learn to embrace the new Amy. And that is when it dawned on me that I didn't have to be five-foot-five anymore. I could be as tall as I wanted! (Laughter) (Applause) Or as short as I wanted, depending on who I was dating. (Laughter) And if I snowboarded again, my feet aren't going to get cold. (Laughter) And best of all, I thought, I can make my feet the size of all the shoes that are on the sales rack. (Laughter) And I did! So there were benefits here.
It was this moment that I asked myself that life-defining question: If my life were a book and I were the author, how would I want the story to go? And I began to daydream. I daydreamed like I did as a little girl and I imagined myself walking gracefully, helping other people through my journey and snowboarding again. And I didn't just see myself carving down a mountain of powder, I could actually feel it. I could feel the wind against my face and the beat of my racing heart as if it were happening in that very moment. And that is when a new chapter in my life began.
Four months later I was back up on a snowboard, although things didn't go quite as expected: My knees and my ankles wouldn't bend and at one point I traumatized all the skiers on the chair lift when I fell and my legs, still attached to my snowboard — (Laughter) — went flying down the mountain, and I was on top of the mountain still. I was so shocked, I was just as shocked as everybody else, and I was so discouraged, but I knew that if I could find the right pair of feet that I would be able to do this again. And this is when I learned that our borders and our obstacles can only do two things: one, stop us in our tracks or two, force us to get creative.
I did a year of research, still couldn't figure out what kind of legs to use, couldn't find any resources that could help me. So I decided to make a pair myself. My leg maker and I put random parts together and we made a pair of feet that I could snowboard in. As you can see, rusted bolts, rubber, wood and neon pink duct tape. And yes, I can change my toenail polish. It was these legs and the best 21st birthday gift I could ever receive — a new kidney from my dad — that allowed me to follow my dreams again. I started snowboarding, then I went back to work, then I went back to school.
Then in 2005 I cofounded a nonprofit organization for youth and young adults with physical disabilities so they could get involved with action sports. From there, I had the opportunity to go to South Africa, where I helped to put shoes on thousands of children's feet so they could attend school.
And just this past February, I won two back-to-back World Cup gold medals — (Applause) — which made me the highest ranked adaptive female snowboarder in the world.
Eleven years ago, when I lost my legs, I had no idea what to expect. But if you ask me today, if I would ever want to change my situation, I would have to say no. Because my legs haven't disabled me, if anything they've enabled me. They've forced me to rely on my imagination and to believe in the possibilities, and that's why I believe that our imaginations can be used as tools for breaking through borders, because in our minds, we can do anything and we can be anything.
It's believing in those dreams and facing our fears head-on that allows us to live our lives beyond our limits. And although today is about innovation without borders, I have to say that in my life, innovation has only been possible because of my borders. I've learned that borders are where the actual ends, but also where the imagination and the story begins.
So the thought that I would like to challenge you with today is that maybe instead of looking at our challenges and our limitations as something negative or bad, we can begin to look at them as blessings, magnificent gifts that can be used to ignite our imaginations and help us go further than we ever knew we could go. It's not about breaking down borders. It's about pushing off of them and seeing what amazing places they might bring us. Thank you.