The festive season brings with it a flurry of emotions, from excitement and celebrations to busy preparations and time to reflect. We asked British Olympic snowboarder Aimee Fuller about what this time of year means to her, and how she looks after the wellbeing of herself and others at Christmastime.
What epitomises Christmas for you?
For me it always represents a period of stillness. I live in London, which is a busy place, and I’ve spent the last 23 years on the road, travelling from event to event, from country to country, so I’ve always utilised Christmas week for family time, a period when I can get back to basics. I love it – the stillness of being in one place, at home in Northern Ireland, surrounded by my family.
How do you usually celebrate during the festive season? Are there any traditions, or rituals, that signify this time of year for you?
Christmas means the Helen’s Bay Christmas Dip, where we all go to the local beach and jump into the sea in Christmas hats. It’s a tradition and usually around 60-80 people strip down to their swimmers and do it. On Christmas Eve, I go carol singing with both of my nans. I always really enjoy that as it’s something I would never normally do, and it really conjures up the spirit of Christmas. I know I am very lucky to still have both of them so I like to spend time with the three of us together. But to be honest, my favourite part of Christmas is always Boxing Day. My mum and I use it as a kick-starter for the New Year, it’s when we set the standard and the pace for what’s to come. Mum is a keen amateur runner, so we always run off Christmas dinner together. Last year, we did eight miles, which I know is not a lot to many, but just to be outside, cruising along together, always feels really good.
How will you be celebrating this year? Will you be doing anything different to usual?
Well, the Christmas Dip will be different this year as the event won’t run in its usual form. But I’ve noticed that lockdown has seen the introduction of open water swimming to the coast and has transformed Helen’s Bay beach. A year ago you might see people run into water and come out straight away. Now most days there are people from the local community voluntarily going to the beach and swimming properly. So I am sure that on Christmas Day there will be that sense of community still on the beach even if the annual mad dip is cancelled. But the real difference for me is that this year, because of lockdown, I will get to experience more of the build-up to Christmas than usual. For so many years I’ve been away competing through December. The snowboarding Word Cup in Colorado normally runs right up to around the 22 December, so I never get to enjoy putting up the tree or just that simple sense of excitement as the big day approaches. This year, it will be so nice to not have to see this as a period during which I’ve got to grab a load of presents for everyone and dash back home. So I’m really looking forward to it – to spending it with my mum, who’s not had her daughter there for 13 years. To put the lights up. To go mountain biking with my brother, whose got really into that during lockdown. I want to go into the woods and watch him do his thing; my brother has watched me do a lot on snow, but he’s so naturally talented as a sportsman. It will be good to see him in his element and take the pressure away from me to do all the stunts.
What has been your most memorable Christmas, and why?
I am lucky as there have been lots of good ones. One great year was 2015 when I came home to Northern Ireland to find there was snow. So my brother and I went snowboarding outside the house; doing what I love on my own doorstep: that was fantastic. Also, my mum and dad have always done Christmas in really big style. They love giving amazing presents, and a highlight was my BMX – a Haro top-of-the-range bright yellow BMX – when I was about 10. I used to love getting a present I could use outside and the best bit would be going to use it with my brother on Christmas Day. As you get older that definitely changes. Now it’s not about getting the presents – instead I enjoy giving things. And the surprise of getting my family something they would never imagine or expect, that’s the treat – I enjoy the giving much more than the receiving now. And the giving of experiences rather than objects, in particular. The last year has been about not being able to have many of those experiences. I miss those – in January, after last Christmas, my mum and I went to Dubai and Sri Lanka, and I would love to be able to do something like that again.
Cooking is often seen as a cathartic pastime, who does the festive cooking in your home?
It’s a real mish-mash. My nan likes getting the dinner ready and getting everyone together, but the last couple of years my mum and I have mish-mashed it together. I enjoy getting involved – I certainly don’t think it’s good for one person to get all the stress. The truth is you can make a decent meal in a couple of hours; the more streamlined you can make it, the less stress; the more hands the better. Get a turkey… in the oven for a couple of hours; get the veg on; job done. I don’t believe in the whole night-before preparation thing.
One person’s positive energy can influence how you move forward. So surround yourself with positive people, and chat to people in a positive way yourself, bringing that ray of light to others
Does the festive period bring any challenges for you? If so, how do you approach/manage them?
I don’t really see it as a stressful time. I see it as a period of time I can step away from my work and enjoy being present. Just back to the basics of looking at the reality of the situation. I am so lucky to have my family, and I appreciate that not everyone has that. I have an amazing family so fretting about what time the turkey will be done is not important: in the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter.
The festive season can be quite busy and stressful. What have you found helps you to relax, and stay calm and positive, during this time?
For me, it is always about exercise and moving, either outside or in the gym. Exercise is absolutely the key to good mental health for me. I notice a change in my mood depending on whether I am able to exercise or not – it’s like night and day for me. It affects how my days and weeks feel. Even if I just give myself half an hour to move, it has an effect. I also believe strongly that you need to do this in the right spirit, and remove any pressure you feel that you must always be completing a full-blown workout every time. There can be stress in setting yourself unrealistic fitness goals. Remove that. Instead, work out what fits in with your lifestyle day-to-day. Small routines that can be changeable are much better and more approachable. For example, I had a work meeting online at 9am this morning and I wanted to do something physical before it but I didn’t have time. So instead of doing the yoga class for an hour I was going to do, I just did 35 minutes instead. It was enough to nourish my mind and my body and set me up. My advice to anyone would be to set yourself small, achievable and scalable goals that can be changed. And get into a routine. That routine doesn’t have to be militant, but a routine that suits you without adding exercise stress is a great thing. Exercise can also be done just by being outside. That is one of the most effective healers mentally, just as much as throwing weights around in a gym. So if you can’t access a gym or you are short of time, go for a walk. March it out. Find some trees, find a coast, go to the river in London. Give that time to yourself.
What do you think is the best way to give back and help others at this time of year?
I think if you know people that are alone or going through difficult times, pop on the phone and chat. Speaking to someone and being positive can bring some light into their life and can change their day. It also makes you feel better too. I remember recently I was speaking to a friend of mine in lockdown, a skateboarder, and I was feeling a bit down. I told her that I felt that I was just constantly grinding through things and she just said, “That’s good, keep it up”. It was such a simple thing but it made all the difference. One person’s positive energy can influence how you move forward. So surround yourself with positive people, and chat to people in a positive way yourself, bringing that ray of light to others. The biggest thing this year is not about presents or gifts, but more about your presence and support – letting people know that you’re there for them. And you can do that by simply picking up the phone or a gesture like sending a card.
What is the most meaningful gift you could give to somebody, and what’s your festive wrapping style?
Your time is the best gift you can give. But if you want to know about my wrapping style – it’s a bit of a mess to be honest. I get hold of any old paper and whack it in there, maybe with a bit of ribbon to finish it up. It’s quite volatile really and depends on changes in my mood and who it is for. So, for example, if it’s for my brother, he won’t care, so I just throw it together. But if it’s someone like one of my sponsors it takes some etiquette. That’s not to say I don’t care about the person if I do a slap-dash job. It’s just that it’s a representation of how much I think they’ll care.
The biggest thing this year is not about presents or gifts, but more about your presence and support – letting people know that you’re there for them
What would you most like to receive this year?
Not a new snowboard, that’s for sure – I’ve got them coming out of my ears! To be honest, I‘d like to receive the freedom to travel freely and go on a trip somewhere with my family as that was all put on hold this year, as it was for all of us. And good health, of course, for all my family. It may be a cliché, but health is wealth and without that you might as well forget the rest.
Do you have a favourite Christmas song?
I love Wham!’s Last Christmas. That’s a bit cheesy, but it’s the truth.
Reflecting on the past year and all of its challenges, could you share with us a positive that you discovered amidst the adversity, or something you learned that you’ll be taking forward with you into 2021?
I’d say sometimes I get distracted by the noise of different paths that I could take, and lockdown has taught me to recentre my focus and really work hard towards what I specifically want to achieve, and not get distracted or swerved from that by other people or opportunities. It has helped me to centre my thoughts on what I really want.
Aimee Fuller is an Olympic snowboarder who has competed for Team GB at the last two Winter Olympics. She is the first woman in the world to land a double backflip in competition (at the X Games in 2013). She is a qualified yogi and is a BOA Athletes’ Commission member, an ambassador for TAG Heuer watches and for Roxy and Barebells. Aimee presents Ski Sunday on TV and has made documentaries, including one about running in North Korea. A fan of sports, and action sports in particular, during lockdown she hosted The Lockdown Lowdown chat show online with Olympic athletes like Chris Froome and Tom Daley as guests. In January she will host a follow-up online series, Life in Limbo, again with prominent Olympians joining her.
The Royal Exchange is partnering with Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest to encourage conversations about mental health, wellbeing and community spirit. For further information on Mind in the City, its support services and how you can get involved with fundraising or volunteering, please visit: mindchwf.org.uk
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