Ellidy Pullin is sun-kissed, sandy-haired, brimming with life. She grew up on the long, yellow arc of Sydney's Narrabeen Beach, which blessed her with a love of nature, a dusting of freckles, a free spirit and an open-hearted optimism. These are all qualities that the love of her life, the late snowboarding champ Alex 'Chumpy' Pullin treasured.
Eighteen months after his death, cradling their little one Minnie in her arms, not one of those qualities has dimmed – in spite of a fierce buffeting by heartache.
"Now that life has flashed in front of my eyes, I've realised that it is all so fragile," she says. "So I take every moment as it comes. Nothing really bad had ever happened in my life, and then the worst thing I could imagine happened.
"It's taught me to be so much more caring for other people's feelings and emotions, it's taught me to be more present, and I'm not afraid of death. I think I'm really not afraid of anything now. I feel like, if I can handle losing Chump, I can handle anything."
In part, that's why Ellidy has chosen to share her story with The Weekly – so that other young women who find themselves suddenly, shockingly, widowed might not feel so alone. And because she wants to celebrate the birth of Minnie Alex Pullin, who has brought joy to so many lives.
When they were younger, Ellidy says, she and Alex "floated in the same circles".
"Then we kissed at my friend's 21st birthday – I was 20, Chump was 25 – and from then on, we were obsessed with each other. We would talk constantly. We moved in together straight away. I'm quite independent – I'm not one of those people who normally dives into things like that – but everything just clicked and felt right. It clicked in like a jigsaw."
First, they lived in a flat on the northern beaches, then moved to the Gold Coast, where they bought their dream house with a view of the ocean, adopted an affectionate mutt, Rummi, and developed a loyal tribe of friends and family, including Ellidy's brother Dave and mum Karen, who moved north not long after them. "We felt settled from the get-go," she says.
Chumpy was a dual world champion and three-time Olympian. He competed all over the world and Ellidy was often at home alone with Rummi for weeks at a time. "But I never had issues with that," she says. She had a solid group of friends and a career of her own as a model and holiday home manager. "We completely supported each other."
Nor was she anxious about Chumpy's safety. "He did the craziest things on the snow," she explains, still a little in awe. "They go at 90km per hour down a mountain and the jumps – they're in the air for 60 metres. But I didn't worry. He was chasing his dreams."
It was the winter of 2020. Chumpy was home, and he and Dave had been doing a bit of spearfishing.
"Chump loves anything outdoorsy, anything underwater. He's like a fish," Ellidy says. She often speaks of Chumpy in the present tense, as if he were right there beside her.
"Spearfishing, you're under there for ages, holding your breath. My brother and Chump would practise. They'd be sitting at the dinner table and they'd go, 'Alright, three minutes, let's go.' And I'd be like, 'Well, this is boring – you guys just holding your breath.'
"Lots of watermen do that – training at home, lying in bed timing themselves, holding their breath. It's a thing you practise, like meditation. Some of our friends have passed out in bed doing it, but they wake up a second later – they take a breath. But if that happens underwater and you have a weight belt on, you're going to sink.
"Just a week before he died, Chump's mum and dad stayed with us. One day, Chump and his dad were talking in the garage and his dad said, 'Be careful of sharks.' Chump said, 'We see sharks all the time down there, but that's not the issue. The issue is shallow water blackouts.'"
July 8, 2020, was a perfect blue-sky day, sunlight bouncing off the ocean like diamonds. Ellidy and Alex slept until 8am and lay chatting in bed, then Ellidy took Rummi for a walk while Alex went diving. They planned to meet later for lunch.
"We both left home at the same time," she says, smiling at the memory. "I remember, when he was leaving, he stopped and got out of the car and came back and gave me a hug. So we had that last hug."
Ellidy was on her way back, about 20 minutes from home, when she was stopped in her tracks by a sudden stabbing pain in her chest. Rummi froze too. "It was a pain sensation I'd never experienced," she says. "It was the sharpest pain."
Back at the house, Karen had come to visit, and then a neighbour arrived. "Hey El," she said, "I was on Facebook just now and saw that a young man had been pulled from the reef unconscious."
"Initially, I felt a bit of a shiver," Ellidy recalls, "but I thought, 'It's not Chumpy, it can't be Chumpy.' Then I went, 'No, I need to go down there.' I just didn't have a good feeling about it.
"We got to the reef and there was ambulance, police, media. The commotion was massive. Mum's an ex-police officer, so she sprinted down to the beach and I was walking slowly behind her. I saw a policeman and I told him my partner was out diving and asked what was going on. He said, 'Did your partner have any tattoos on his chest?' I thought, 'Lots of people have tattoos on their chest.' But I told him, 'Yes, he has a large axe on his ribs.' I'll never forget the look the police officer gave me. Then he turned into his car. He didn't say anything.
"I knew then that something serious had happened. Mum came running back up the beach and she didn't have to say anything. I could read her eyes … I didn't ask anyone exactly what had happened. I think I was scared to know."
The day wore on. There were questions from police. Family and friends appeared out of nowhere. Ellidy had to break the news to Alex's parents, Sally and Chris. It wasn't until days later that it became clear Chumpy had succumbed to a shallow water blackout – probably at just the same time Ellidy was struck by chest pain on her walk.
"The feeling was my heart shattering before my brain even knew," Ellidy says softly. "He obviously held his breath for a second too long and blacked out … He lost consciousness peacefully."
In the days that followed, with the help of a wonderful support team, Chumpy's funeral was planned and Ellidy managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
"As a 28-year-old girl, the last thing you ever think you'll be organising is your soulmate's funeral," she says. "Thank God for everyone around me. If something like this ever happens to you, just get a good crew around you and don't be afraid to say, 'I need help, I need you'."
Friends had a fingerprint made before Chumpy's body was cremated and had it cast into a charm which Ellidy wears around her neck. She's had charms made for his family, too.
Another friend had heard about sperm retrieval. "Initially," says Ellidy, she was thinking, "'That sounds weird; I don't know.' But they decided they had to ask me. I'm so grateful they did. I don't know where I'd be if that hadn't happened.
"Straight away I said yes. 'Yes, yes, 100 per cent go with it. It's not even a question in my mind.' Because if we didn't do it right away, we wouldn't have the opportunity later. Chump's parents were on board with it, too. They knew we'd been trying to start a family."
The grief process, Ellidy says, was not like anything she'd imagined, and it changed her forever.
"Initially," she confesses, "I had no emotions. I felt nothing. I felt so numb. I didn't feel anything for weeks. I was a robot. I was empty. I think I essentially shut down, but my body was still moving. Although I did know something really bad had happened, and that it was going to have major repercussions on my life. So I made appointments to see psychologists because I was just so scared I wasn't feeling anything and that one day it was going to hit me like a tonne of bricks."
Every morning, she would walk on the beach with Rummi. "That was my therapy," she says. "That's what's got me through … I remember, in those early days when I was in my room with Rummi, I would always feel [Chumpy] there … Even after the funeral, a part of me kept feeling like life would go back to normal and Chump would walk back through the door … He was such an energetic, alive human, it's hard to accept that he could just be gone in a split second. I don't think I'll ever be able to accept that. I say to everyone – cuddle your loved ones. Don't take anything for granted."
As if to push this message home, just a month after Chumpy's death, Ellidy's father, Pete, was diagnosed with stage four glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. She and Dave travelled back to Sydney to spend time with him, and then borders closed and they were stranded there for three months.
"They told us he would have six to 12 months to live at best. I had no words. It seemed so surreal," Ellidy says, wiping away a tear. On the day we meet, it's been 17 months since Pete's diagnosis. He's in palliative care and the family has been told he could go within days. But as we go to press, Pete is hanging on.
"Dad's an absolute trooper," Ellidy says with a lot of pride. "He's been amazing. He was literally on his death bed last week – I didn't know if he was going to make it through the day – and he was saying, 'Don't worry, be happy.' Whenever we cry, he'll say, 'Please don't be afraid. It's okay.'
"Seeing how Chump's life was ripped away at 32, I think my dad, who is only 68, feels grateful because he has lived and done so much. He's had an epic life, and he always says, 'Chump didn't get that. I'm so lucky.' Dad's amazing. He gives us this sense of life and happiness through all this."
When Ellidy finally got back across the border to Queensland, she put the wheels in motion to begin IVF.
"I understood that there would be more grief with having a baby," she explains. "There would be all the birthdays and milestones [Chumpy] would be missing. But then I thought, 'It's going to be hard anyway.' And I didn't want Chump to just die and be gone. I felt this was bringing a part of him back. We'd wanted a baby, and I couldn't think of anything I wanted more right then than a person I could love and cherish. I knew I had the best support around me. So I went with my gut, and I wasn't afraid. I just trusted the process."
Ellidy became pregnant on the second IVF round. "I know that is often not the case," she says. "I was like, 'If it's going to happen, it will happen. It's got to be a meant-to-be thing. Chump's got to be guiding this.'"
Minnie Alex Pullin was born on October 25, 2021. "And she's absolutely perfect," Ellidy says, beaming. "Now that she's here, I just know that was so meant to be. I see and feel so much of Chump in her. I know I've done the right thing so wholeheartedly.
"Dad's just cherishing the moments with Bub. Mum is so besotted and happy and overwhelmed. She was there for the birth. She's been there every step of the way. This is themost precious little gift to them.
"And for Chump's parents, Chris and Sal, this is giving them so much to live for. Chump's mother is quite sick. She has cancer and she's doing chemo at the moment, so it's the toughest time. Sal will make it through, but they have so much on their plate. They will never be okay with Chump not being here. Chump was their rock.
"The first time they met Minnie, she was four weeks old, and they were really emotional. I knew they could see Chump in her. Then we spent a weekend together and they had heaps of cuddles with Minnie … They just look at her and cry. It's so special. Chump's sister, Em, is the same.
"They were all wearing his old jackets the other day, and we all had our jewellery made from Chumpy's fingerprint, and we were holding his baby. We just feel like he's around us … Late at night, when I'm feeding, I have this gut knowing that he's around us. I feel so supported. I feel like he must be around guiding me or helping me … I'd love to have a chat with him and find out what he thinks. I think he would be proud. I hope he would be proud. I hope he thinks we're doing okay. Everything I do, I think of him."
As if being a new mum in the face of all those challenges wasn't enough, Ellidy has created a podcast – Darling, Shine! – with her best friend, Chloe Fisher, in which they share very honest conversations about "the raw experiences of womanhood, grief and friendship". And Ellidy has written an online workbook – Now What? A Guide to Navigating Life After Loss – with her friend Lotte Bowser.
"I want to normalise talking about grief and trauma," she explains. "I think it helps. All we literally have is each other and it's so important to talk."
Along with his family, Ellidy has created the Chumpy Pullin Foundation, a charity that will provide chances for disadvantaged athletes to follow their snowsports dreams. "There are so many people out there," she says, "who might become the next Chumpy if they had the opportunity."
And this is just the start. "I'm going to keep talking about these things," she says, bright-eyed and invincible, "I'm going to keep fundraising for the foundation. I'm going to keep Chumpy's spirit alive." AWW
To donate or learn more, visit chumpypullinfoundation.org; to hear Ellidy and Chloe's podcast, visit darlingshine.com; to read Ellidy and Lotte's book, visit nowwhatgrief.com.
You can read this story and many others in the February issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now.