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Through Triathlon, Amy Purvis is Living Her American Dream

From a tragic beginning in Vietnam, she’s proving there’s nothing she can’t do—one race at a time.

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“Other people can do it. Why not me?”

That’s the question that got Amy Purvis, a 54-year-old IT manager from Orange, California, into Ironman. “All these other people? They don’t have anything special that I don’t have,” she remembered thinking as she watched the Ironman World Championships on TV for the first time. “I can work hard. If I have the time and commit to it, it’s possible.”

Purvis said that she feels lucky every day to be here, to be an American, and to have the opportunity to toe the line at Saturday’s Ironman St. George—and for good reason. “There are just so many things that could’ve gone the other way,” she said.

A turbulent beginning

Although her triathlon journey didn’t begin until 2018, when she was 49, her story of perseverance began back when she was just a baby living in a small village in Vietnam.

“The village I was born in, Danang, was between North and South Vietnam,” she said. That village was destroyed in the Tet Offensive of 1968; her parents did not survive the attack, but they managed place her in a hanging basket, which is where she was when American soldiers found her. She was wounded, and still has white pockmarks on her skin from the phosphorus and a large scar on her abdomen, but she survived and was taken to an orphanage.

“The nuns at the orphanage had determined that I’d never be adopted because of my injuries,” Purvis said. “They thought I would stay there, do chores, and become a nun.” But when David, the American Marine who would become her adoptive father, came to the orphanage, it wasn’t her injuries that he noticed, but her spirit.

“He said I threw a football to him, and that my make-up was just different from the other children in the orphanage, that I was special,” she said. “I never forget that I was chosen, that I was given a chance to have a new life. That didn’t happen for thousands of other people from Vietnam.”

Purvis’ indomitable spirit continued as she began her new life in America. “My dad said he put me on a bicycle at two-and-a-half-years old. I never had training wheels—I was just determined to learn to ride a bike,” she said. “There’s never been a question of not being able to do something if I really wanted it. I’ve always worked hard. Sometimes, I’ve done things the hard way, but I’ve been blessed to be able to be successful in what I do.”

(A tattoo on Purvis’ forearm reads, “She said she would so she did,” which sums up her mentality nicely. And that placement is no accident. “When I’m in aero and hating life, I can see it. It’s for me,” she said.)

A logical approach

While her attitude of gratitude plays a large role in Purvis’ success, her highly analytical mind has been a major factor in her rapid Ironman progress. “It’s kind of a mathematical equation,” she said. “If I put in the time and effort, and if I can map out a plan that mathematically works, then I know I can do it.”

For instance, after having her daughter, she wanted to set a goal for getting back into shape, so in 2005, she ran her first marathon—the 30th annual L.A. Marathon. Ten years later, she decided to train for the 40th annual L.A. Marathon, but the experience was drastically different. “When I did the 2015 marathon, I was overweight, and it was a really hot day. I remember training for it but I kept getting injured. On race day, it took me six hours, and I was really unhappy,” she said. “And that started sort of a snowball effect in my life. I started to wonder, why am I unhappy with myself? It called into question my commute, my marriage, everything.”

It was time for some changes—on her terms. “I figured out that I wanted to be healthier, so I started working out more,” she said. She had an old bike that she started riding, and, during the hot summer months, she swam laps. “I was just doing the breast stroke,” she said, “but I realized that, hey, now I’m running, biking, and swimming.”

And so, in 2017, when Purvis had moved out from her marriage and a friend suggested doing a metric century ride through wine country, she was all in. “It was beautiful. I loved it! And it sparked something in me,” she said. “It was an adventure, and I was having fun with friends.”

An impressive journey

That fun with friends continued when a pal asked Purvis to sign up for an Olympic triathlon with her—and at this point, Purvis, with her logical brain, knew she needed to step up her training. “I wasn’t swimming freestyle, or swimming for speed or distance,” she said. “So, on Jan. 1, 2018, I signed up for 24 Hour Fitness to have access to the lap pool, and I got a swim coach.”

Her first triathlon was a sprint that April. “I loved it,” she said. “I got bitten by the bug.” However, the Olympic distance race a few months later was a different story. “I was not ready for the distance,” she remembered. Still, she understood why she’d struggled and knew what she needed to do to improve, so, rather than feel sorry for herself, she stepped it up once again. “From there, I never did another sprint. I did one more Olympic, and then, all half-Ironmans and fulls.”

“In my first half, in Palm Springs, I twisted my ankle on the run and got lost on the bike course,” she said. “I vowed after that to never allow myself to be unprepared. I was going to be in better shape, and I was not going to be dependent on anyone else.”

That was in December 2018, and that commitment to self-sufficiency paralleled her life, too, as she moved on from a romantic relationship and dedicated herself to her work, her daughter, and her training. In fact, she signed up for her first full before she’d even done that half. After all, she’d done the math—she knew what was required, and she knew she could do it. But, her road to St. George was not a straight shot; a bike accident during a training ride led to a separated shoulder and derailed her plans for her first full Ironman in 2019. “I took three days off training, then got back to it—just not swimming,” she said. “After three weeks, my coach had me put on a long sleeved shirt and tied the left sleeve down. We were trying to gauge whether I could do the swim with one arm.” Purvis didn’t think her other skills were strong enough to compensate for the time a one-armed swim would take her, though, and deferred to Ironman Florida 2019.

Like everyone, the pandemic threw off Purvis’ anticipated racing schedule, but she made up for it in 2021. “I did three half Ironmans and one full last year,” she said, laughing. And as she gained strength and confidence, a new goal took root. “I did Tulsa in 14:06, and in my mind, I thought, ‘Oh my god, if I trained a little bit harder … maybe I can get to Kona one day.’” She began looking at different races to see the finish times for women in her age group. “Things can go one way or another on race day,” she said, “but I looked at the top five. I figured, if I have a good race and favorable conditions, I could aim for 12:30. I might have a chance.”

When she toes the line in St. George, she won’t just be grateful to be there—she’ll also be looking for redemption. She raced 70.3 St. George last year and wasn’t happy with her performance, so she signed up for this year’s race as redemption, even before it was announced as the Ironman World Championship.

Although she has goals in mind, this race is mainly for the challenge, not necessarily for a PR. “I’m going to do my best and see how things come out,” she said.

And no matter what, she’s looking forward to it. “I love race day! I love all the other people racing, trying to do their best. And in Utah, at St. George, they have awesome support.” Plus, she’s already got post-St. George plans to look forward to: Hawaii 70.3 in June, where her daughter will accompany her, making that a winning experience before she even begins her swim.

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