Growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia, where people pledge allegiance to God, country, and NASCAR in one order or another, Christmas Abbott always had a rebellious streak. Even before she was a teenager, Abbott was sneaking out of the house to parties in search of a good time, trouble, or both. Health problems like chronic asthma and debilitating allergies didn't deter her from drinking and smoking. She made it out of high school—barely—and tried to join the Army at 18, only to get rejected. So, she started slinging drinks in local bars.
Pause the story here, and the notion that Abbott would become a well-known fitness personality seems laughable. Yet somehow, that's what happened.
The script flipped in 2004 when Abbott, then 22, shipped off to Iraq during the war as a private contractor. Suddenly, she had structure and discipline, and with little else to distract her, time to develop an obsession with CrossFit-style training. Upon returning stateside in 2007, Abbott continued her immersion in the sport, improving to the point that she competed in the CrossFit Games. The 5-foot-3 115-pounder also became the first female member of a NASCAR pit crew, a physically grueling gig that put all of her fitness training to the test.
Of late, Abbott has immersed herself ever more fully in fitness, running her own CrossFit gym in Raleigh, North Carolina, and writing a book, "The Badass Body Diet," published in 2015. I caught up with her between workouts.
Did your parents tell you why they named you Christmas? I hope you were born on Christmas morning or something cool like that.
Sorry to disappoint you, but I was not. I was born on December 20. My mom had a hard pregnancy with me, so when I was born, she said I was her "Christmas joy."
You seem so driven now. I was surprised you described yourself as a smoker and a slacker as a teenager.
Yeah, that's putting it lightly! I was rebellious from a very early age. When I was 13, I was in a tragic car accident, and in the aftermath, I embraced an alternative lifestyle. I grew up around bikers, so it was not very different from what I was already exposed to, except I got to make the choices for myself.
How bad was the car accident?
The car rolled seven times and flipped twice. My sister broke her back, and my sister's friend broke her neck. They both survived. I walked away with no injuries, but to see my sister have to rebuild her entire life was traumatizing. So, instead of retreating into my family and finding comfort in their understanding and our roots, I started sneaking out and partying and hiding from what I needed to deal with emotionally from that incident.
Did you graduate from high school?
Yes, barely! I walked out a few times, but I did graduate with some sort of a GPA, if you can call it that.
How did you end up in Iraq, of all places?
The funny thing is, when I was 18, I realized where my path was leading, and I tried to join the military. But this was before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and they weren't pressed for people to join, so they rejected me because I had so many health issues as a child.
I took the job overseas a few years later, because my mom told me it was a good opportunity to gain worldly experience and be able to eventually pay for school. My first job there was as a laundry attendant, and then I forged my way up into operations management for a camp. To be able to have a direct positive influence with the military on a ground level during Operation Iraqi Freedom was an incredible experience.
How do you look back on that time in your life today?
Going overseas was one of the best decisions of my life. Living conditions were terrible, the food was terrible, and we lived a primitive lifestyle. Yet, that's why it was so amazing. It was very structured: I had to work and work out every single day. I had never had that structure before, and I began to thrive. It taught me how to start a job and finish it, as well as what sacrifices must be made to get what you want.
Is the military where your interest in tattoos first developed?
No, I come from a whole family of tattooed people. My dad was a biker, so he had the tattoos all over. Then my mom got her first tattoo when she was 40. My first tattoo was like a family outing.
How did you get the CrossFit bug?
It started in Iraq. I quit smoking, and a year later, I started working out. One of the guys in the gym showed me a CrossFit video, and I was so impressed, because there were girls my size performing incredible feats of strength.
I was so fascinated with CrossFit that I recruited some of the guys in the camp to work out with me. They showed no mercy. They would be done with their workout within 15-20 minutes, and I would be working out for 45 minutes. We didn't know how to scale or modify the workouts, and they found entertainment in making me their guinea pig.
I was resilient, though. I let them throw whatever they wanted at me, and I took it. We still get together about once a year and throw down. Recently, I beat them, which was awesome!
How did your body change once you started doing CrossFit and going through these grueling workouts?
It filled out. I was just barely making my shorts fit for a long time. My butt wouldn't fit in my jeans, and I had a little muffin top, and I was like, "This isn't correct." Once I started CrossFit, my shorts suddenly fit and looked good. It was a very different change for my body, which I enjoyed. I was not just a skinny-fat girl anymore.
So, you've been doing CrossFit ever since?
Yeah, I do CrossFit along with other things. Anything that interests me, I try. What worked for me may not work for everybody. As long as somebody is doing something they love that's healthy for them, they should keep doing it. I'm not going to put down what someone's doing just because it's not what I'm doing.
What made you decide to compete in CrossFit?
I was forced into doing a competition by my training partner. I had no interest in competing, and they were like, "Just do it and go and have fun." They literally paid my entry fee and signed me up, so I couldn't say no. I went and just had a good time. Honestly, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I found that a different person came out in competition.
Today, I don't compete with anyone; I compete with myself.
Why do you think CrossFit engenders such intense reactions online?
You know, it's a culture. We cultivate a community that supports each other, and today we are still kind of the black sheep of the fitness industry. And when something completely changes your life for the better, you are going to defend it with all of your heart. If you love something so much that you'll go to war for it, that says something, especially if it makes people have positive changes in their life.
I see you've also segued into Olympic lifting competitively.
Oh yeah, I love that! Give me some weights! I would rather lift weights heavy every day than run.
I'm going to Nationals this year, so I'd like to see how far I can go. I'd like it to be an annual thing, lifting in the American Open and the U.S. Nationals.
Tell me about your approach to nutrition.
I actually started a nutrition workshop where I talk about eating things that are going to fuel me as an athlete but also that I like in real life. It's kind of combining fantasy with nutrition.
How do you do that?
Who has time to follow the perfect nutrition plan? That's not reality. The reality is you need simple, easy meals to make, because nobody can make a gourmet meal every single night of the week, or every single meal. I believe in bulk cooking, I believe in weighing and measuring, and I believe in enjoying your cheat guilt-free if you've earned it that week. Those are my key nutrition principles.
I eat whole foods as much as possible: meats, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds. That's the backbone of my entire diet. Cupcakes come in about once a week. I truly am a cupcake addict, and I'm OK with that. So I eat well, and I train well for the reward, and the reward is my cupcake!
I'm curious as to whether you take any dietary supplements.
I drink a recovery shake immediately after my workout. I also take a high-quality fish oil, one with a higher percentage of EPA than DHA. I take BCAAs during my workout when I remember to. And I take zinc in the morning and magnesium at night. I'll experiment beyond that, but those are the basics.
You've accomplished some amazing things under less-than-ideal circumstances. Do you have a formula for overcoming adversity?
I'm just relentless in pursuing my goals. You could say there is a formula, and it's focusing on creating a strong mentality, which I call mental fortitude. When your mind is strong, you can achieve anything!
"Impossible" is only for those who believe it, and I refuse to believe what others think I can or can't do. It's important to me that I choose my own path and stay true to myself. That's what creates the passion that helps me stay the course when things are rough. I know in my heart that I'm doing what I should!
You don't seem afraid to experiment and try new things. How do you decide when something is worth pursuing?
First, I evaluate what it is that interests me, and then I weigh it against my moral compass and goals. I want to try new things—I'm naturally curious—but I also need to make sure it enhances my life and doesn't detract from my purpose. So, although there are a ton of really cool things out there to try and do, not all of them will fit into what I am trying to accomplish for my legacy.
Update me on your various fitness projects.
Oh, man! There are so many cool things I'm working on. I have a second book in the works, which will be published mid-2017. It's about developing the mental tenacity I was just speaking of, so you can create better habits for yourself and ultimately have a more balanced life.
I'm working on an app that will help simplify nutrition for people who are struggling with it. I'm also doing online programming with my Badass Body Diet and Badass Life company. These people are having huge transformations and are able to make life changes instead of crashing and burning on fad diets. The program helps people learn how to take back their lives in a positive way.