Chumpy Pullin’s journey from the foot of Mt Buller to the top of the world

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Alex Pullin, known almost always as Chumpy, was Australia’s first-ever snowboard world champion, a three-time Olympian and, at his peak, one of the very best snowboard cross athletes in the world.

Through a 13-year professional career, Pullin rose to the top of his sport and became one of Australia’s most recognisable winter athletes, culminating in his selection as the country’s flag bearer at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

He died on Wednesday, aged 32, in a spearfishing accident off Palm Beach on the Gold Coast.

Surrounded by snow from birth, Pullin was born in Mansfield, Victoria, at the foot of Mt Buller. He took to snowboarding young, sparking a love affair that would last the length of his life.

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Alex Pullin was Australia’s first snowboard world champion and one of its best-ever winter athletes.(AAP: Paul Miller)

Not long after discovering snowboarding, a young Chumpy discovered snowboard cross, which he said he felt was “the most pure form of competition”.

“I was so attracted to competing from a young age,” Pullin said on his website.

“My dad and I used to race to everything. The nearest tree or racing home on our bikes. It became second nature to test myself that way.

“When I started snowboarding, there were many different disciplines I competed in, but Boardercross always felt like it tested all of my snowboard skills.”

By early 2007, at just 19 years old, Pullin competed in his first World Cup event in Furano, Japan. He finished third in his heat, missing out on qualification, but it was just the beginning.

Japan would be the site of Pullin’s breakthrough one year later, when he claimed his first World Cup medal with a third-place finish in Gujo-Gifu.

Just two years out from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the bronze medal put Chumpy on the map in Australia, and proved he was capable of competing with the world’s best.

Pullin took that confidence to Vancouver, where he made his Olympic debut in the snowboard cross.

Alex Pullin screams in delight while holding an Australian flag over his head.
Alex Pullin won his first World Championship in 2011.(Reuters: Susana Vera)

Impressively, Pullin was the fastest qualifier of the 35-man field, earning him top billing for the head-to-heat heads. But the luck snowboard cross requires was not on his side as he crashed out in the quarter-finals, finishing 17th overall.

That Olympics appearance helped properly launch Pullin’s career though, and only weeks later he won gold at a World Cup event for the very first time.

Victory in Valmalenco, Italy was followed by silver medals in La Molina and Lech am Arlberg and a bronze in Telluride to ensure that by the end of 2010, Pullin was a regular and serious threat.

But at the World Champions in 2011, again in La Molina, Chumpy put that beyond doubt. His victory in the final officially made him Australia’s first-ever snowboarding world champion, and capped his rapid rise to the top of the sport.

In 2011 he also won the Overall Crystal Globe, crowning the best boarder across all World Cup events through the season.

But Pullin’s best season was likely 2013, as he became the first Australian to ever successfully defend a world championship crown with victory in Stoneham, and claim a second Overall World Crown.

At the peak of his powers and more confident than ever, and with the 2014 Sochi Olympics rapidly approaching, Chumpy was officially named as Australia’s flag bearer and the face of the team.

An Australian male snowboarder kisses his gold medal at the 2013 snowboard world championships.
Chumpy went back to back at the 2013 World Championships.(Reuters: Mathieu Belanger)

“It’s such a special experience to walk out as an athlete in that opening ceremony. It’s just very emotional, it’s uplifting,” he said at the time.

“You just want to throw your hands in the air and celebrate with your friends and also you feel that there’s something ahead of you and it’s just a moment around the corner.”

But with the eyes of the country on him, Pullin fell afoul of the fickle nature of his sport and was wiped out in the quarter-finals after winning his opening heat. He finished 13th overall.

If the disappointing Sochi result was a blow to Chumpy, his follow-up performances didn’t show it.

He was a podium regular through 2015 and 2016, and began to recapture his best form again in 2017 with back-to-back gold medals in Argentina in September, before claiming bronze at the World Championships in Spain.

Alex Pullin celebrates after his run in the snowboard cross semifinals
Pullin crashed out of the final in the 2018 Winter Olympics.(AP: Gregory Bull)

It meant Pullin would go to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang as the world number one, but again luck was not to be on his side.

After easing through to the final, Chumpy crashed out early and could only claim a sixth-place finish.

The years post-PyeongChang were less prosperous for Pullin in a snowboarding sense, but competing was only ever one part of Pullin’s life.

Pullin was an avid surfer, a talented musician, a motivational speaker and, heartbreakingly, an experienced freediver and spearfisher.

Snow Australia described Pullin as a “beloved member” of its community. Australian Olympic Team Chef de Mission Ian Chesterman said he was a “was a champion bloke as well as being a champion athlete”, and a “natural leader”.

Well-liked and respected across the board, his death is a shock and blow for winter athletes and sport fans across the country.

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