Christmas Abbott began her fitness journey at the age of 22 in an unlikely place: war-torn Iraq. Abbott went to Iraq in 2004 to work as a civilian contractor, at her mother's suggestion. "She saw the type of life that I was living," Abbott, now 34, tells SELF. "I was drinking, smoking, doing lots of drugs—heavy drugs."
After just a few weeks in Iraq, Abbott's camp came under mortar fire. It was the scariest day of her life. "Mortar rounds will tend to put things in perspective," she says. "I leapt out of bed and I looked around, and I just knew that for a decade I had been making decisions that were eventually going to kill me. That day I decided that I was worth living for." She turned to fitness and nutrition as a way to get her act together.
Abbott started with regular workouts on the elliptical, then found CrossFit in 2006. She pushed herself in the high-intensity training program and was thrilled at the physical and mental changes she started seeing in herself. The result: She gained incredible muscles, and she found the mental clarity she needed to face her demons head on.
The "relentless rebel," as she calls herself, is now a nationally ranked weightlifter, CrossFit competitor, author, and a bonafide fitness celebrity with a cool 374,000 followers on Instagram. She's the owner and head coach at CrossFit Invoke in Raleigh, North Carolina. And in 2012, she made headlines when she became the first woman to ever work with a NASCAR pit crew. She worked in the pit for a year, putting her power, strength, and speed to the test as she changed front tires during major races like the Daytona 500.
The trainer's fitness philosophy: to show women that it's never too late to start loving and caring for their bodies, both physically and mentally. She also wants to help women see their so-called imperfections are what make them unique. "It’s my duty to put that message out there that you get one body and you better freakin’ love it and take care of it," she says. "And it doesn’t have to fit any certain specific mold."
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From a NASCAR pit to CrossFit, Christmas Abbot totally rocks it
The marketing mavens at Dos Equis like to think they have the Most Interesting Man in the World. They should sign Christmas Abbott; then they would also have the Most Interesting Woman in the World.
Consider this: The 33-year-old Abbott just released her first book, The Badass Body Diet, in mid-May. The 5' 3" 122-pound tattooed dynamo is also a nationally ranked weight lifter and CrossFit competitor, a CrossFit trainer and the owner of a gym in Raleigh, N.C. And for a year-and-half, she was also the sole female member of a NASCAR Sprint Cup pit crew, swapping out tires on Clint Boyer’s number 15 car.
“I love, love hanging tires,” says Abbott. “The challenge is so exhilarating, one of the most exciting things I've discovered.”
Looking at Abbott’s ripped physique today, it’s hard to imagine that she was an emaciated 22-year-old when she left home, following her mom to Baghdad, Iraq, to take a laundry attendant job supporting U.S. soldiers. She was admittedly a “slacker” as a teenager, smoking cigarettes since she was 13 and “drinking every day” by the time she landed in Iraq.
“I went overseas, and had an epiphany when we had incoming at the camp,” says Abbott, describing a mortar attack. “I realized I had been making a lot of decisions that were eventually going to kill me, in one way or another. So that day, I decided to quit smoking. A couple months later, I tried to work out, and it was a disaster. Eventually I started working out more, and grew into CrossFit.”
Abbott threw herself into her new lifestyle and training with the zeal of a true convert. She cut fried, greasy foods from her diet, and cut back on her alcohol consumption. Soon, she started layering muscle on a body that she says “looked anorexic” Pushed and cajoled by a number of Special Forces soldiers, Abbott also discovered a tenacity she hadn’t realized she possessed.
“So when I came home, I continued to do CrossFit, because I loved it so much,” she says.
In 2010 Abbott opened a gym in Raleigh—CrossFit Invoke—that she still owns today. She also started competing in CrossFit events, which resemble something of an alternative decathlon, with Olympic lifts, gymnastics, running, powerlifting, rowing, rope climbs, swimming, kettlebell swings, and obstacle courses. She won often enough to become nationally ranked, and that success led her to weight-lifting.
“If you're a better weight-lifter, you can do your CrossFit workouts better,” says Abbott.
In a way, Abbott’s training connection also led her to the asphalt oval. A fellow CrossFit competitor, she says, “called me, and asked if I wanted to come play NASCAR one day,” she says.
“He literally said ‘play NASCAR,’” Abbott says. “And I said sure, thinking I was going to drive. I get there, and they’re talking about this Pit Crew Challenge, explaining how we’re going to jack the car, carry tires, and hit lug nuts. And I was really, really pissed off. I was so mad that I was going to have to change tires.”
In typical fashion, however, Abbott took her anger out on her opponents.
“So I went ahead and did the Pit Crew challenge, and in the true spirit of competition, we went head-to-head with each other, and timed everything,” Abbott says. “I beat the boys in two of the three events. I beat the boys in hanging the tire, and hitting the lug nuts.“NASCAR has a hand speed of 1.2 seconds per five lug nuts. So you have to hit five lug nuts in 1.2 seconds. That’s elite level, Sprint Cup-level hand speed. That day, on my fourth try, I had a hand speed of 1.7 seconds. So I was only a half second slower, on my first day. And I just obsessed about it. I fell in love with it.”
For Abbott, changing tires provided the same rush she felt when she first discovered CrossFit. Several weeks later, she was recruited by, and eventually landed a spot on, the crew for Michael Waltrip Racing. “I had no idea it wasn’t a female-dominated sport,” she says. “I just figured that since tire changers had to be small and accurate and powerful, that women were already in the sport.”
“I came on during the  season. I also did some Truck and Nationwide series, and even some derbies before the season started, which was really different than NASCAR,” she says. “NASCAR has a great system set up. They’re just dialed in. Derby is a little more localized. Rather than bringing in national talent, they bring in local talent, and you just go with the flow.”
Asked if NASCAR was simply in her blood, given that she’s a native of Lynchburg, Vir., Abbott laughs. “My family was definitely excited when they found out” about her pit crew gig, she says. “That’s when they took my athletic training seriously. It’s one thing to do CrossFit training or weight lifting, but once I went into NASCAR I was legit.
“I didn’t have any credibility as an athlete until I went into NASCAR.”
But while Abbott was especially skilled at quickly hanging a perfectly balanced tire, she soon learned that the demands of the job threatened to throw her life out of balance.
“People are surprised, but it really is a year-round commitment,” she says. “You’re always training, and you only get two weeks off. It’s a younger person’s sport. If this was 10 years ago, I’d be all over it, and building my career around this. But I was coming into the sport at 30 years old, as a tire changer, when most of the tire changers have retired by 30 because of knee issues.
“I just found I can balance my life a little bit more owning my own gym, CrossFitting, weight-lifting, and then doing my nutrition seminars, versus focusing only on NASCAR,” says Abbott. “That was a tough decision for me, because I really loved the industry, I really loved the challenge of it, and I really love changing tires. The whole process is really fascinating. It was a hard decision, because I wanted to do it all.”
Which leads, inevitably, to the question: “What’s next?” Abbott says she isn’t sure, but competing at the Olympic level in weight lifting is still a goal. With a nationwide RV tour to promote her new book and nutrition seminars this summer (a schedule can be found at christmasabbott.com), Abbott admits the 2016 Games in Rio are out of reach. But she hasn’t eliminated 2020 in Tokyo.
“I always tell people ‘Don't take it off my list, because I'll surprise you,’” she says. "Don’t count me out.”
Good advice. It's never a good idea to count out a badass.