Jun 9

An interview with North Carolina's world-champion cheese wheel chaser

Abby Lampe won a highly dangerous competition where people chase a wheel of cheese down an extremely steep hill in England. She's from North Carolina. So of COURSE we had to talk to her.

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A new podcast from the creator of "Away Message." Award-winning journalist Jeremy Markovich takes a deep dive into the important (and unimportant) minutiae of the country's greatest state: North Carolina.
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On Sunday night, many Rabbit Hole readers alerted me to the existence of this video. Start watching at :19 seconds, and keep your eye on the woman in black on the far right.

I swear to you, I have never seen an athletic competition so beautiful and so violent in my entire life. If you don’t have time to watch, here’s what’s happening: Someone rolls a large wheel of cheese down a steep hill in England. Then people chase the cheese. Many of them fall and tumble. But whoever gets to the bottom first wins the prize: A fine wheel of Double Gloucester.

One woman, however, really got after it:

And she won! She won the cheese! And immediately after, her first statement was: “I’m from North Carolina!”

I tracked her down. Her name is Abby Lampe. She just graduated from NC State, and soon after, decided to compete in the Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake near Gloucestershire, England. There’s a lot of history behind that race, but the headline is this: No American had ever won the women’s race. Until Abby. She even sort of called her shot in a TikTok:

I tracked her down in Barcelona and arranged to talk to her via Zoom, and since so many of you tipped me off about this, I thought it only fair to read her some of your questions. She also sent me some behind the scenes video of her training regimen.

Here is our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen above, or read below. A note! This many be too long for your email, so I encourage you to make sure you read the entire message.


Rabbit Hole: My son, who's 7, wants to know, how did you win the race?

Abby: You just have to be the first person down to the hill. You're never going to catch the cheese. The cheese is just a marker. Honestly, the cheese can go up to 70 miles per hour. It just hits the fence and then that's it. And then after you get down the hill, whoever finishes first gets the cheese.

Rabbit Hole: My daughter, who's 5, wants to know: How did you roll down the hill that fast?

Abby: I don't know. Honestly, I think because the hill is so steep, I just caught momentum and I kept going and there was no really stopping it. You couldn't stop if you wanted to.

Rabbit Hole: I have other questions here. One of them is from Rana Cash, who is the executive editor of the Charlotte Observer. She has her own news outlet. I don't know why she's going through me to ask this question, but her question is really easy: “Why?”

Abby: I love participating in events. I grew up very competitive. I played a lot of sports, and this is something I've never done before. This is like a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity. And I wanted to do it because I was going to be in the area at the same time. I looked in March to see when the competition would be held this year, and it was during the time where I would be in Europe. So I booked a ticket to Spain and then I also booked a ticket to the U.K.

Rabbit Hole: I've seen that you practiced at Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh. Somebody wants to know, specifically, which hill did you practice on at Dix Park?

Abby: I practiced on the hill across the road from Magnolia Room. I think it's a wide open space where you enter Dorothea Dix from Western Boulevard. I'm not exactly sure the name of it. But during like over there, you can kind of see the Raleigh farmer's market. I didn't go to the flower fields or that area, but there's hillier areas across that way.

Rabbit Hole: Here are two questions from Jennifer Moxley:

Abby: So I discovered it through social media a while ago. There are tons of videos on YouTube about this with compilations of people rolling down the hill and the injuries that are inflicted by it. A lot of people have made videos commentating on the event, so those are really funny to watch. I hadn't actually seen the Netflix docuseries until the day before the race. Someone told me about it and I was like, really? So I watched it the night before to get ready. And that definitely helped me prepare mentally, physically, definitely more than Dorothea Dix. On Friday when I came to England, I did a test run. You're overlooking the whole village of Brockworth and there's some really steep parts to get up the hill. So I got to the top, and I was just going to walk down, kind of get a feel for it. I immediately slip and I slide down probably half of the hill itself, and then I look up and I'm like, Wow, this is a lot steeper than I thought. I was just surprised. I didn't realize that it was going to be this difficult, especially with the conditions. It was misty, rainy, very wet, and muddy, and my shoes were getting soaked.

And after I slid down probably halfway, I got on my feet again and tried to walk down. And when you're walking down this hill, you pick up a lot of momentum just walking and then you're kind of trying not to fall. And then I tumbled a little bit, so I got to feel what it felt like to tumble down the hill two days prior to the race.

The race itself on Sunday started at 12:00 p.m. and they have two downhill men's races before the women's race. So I videoed them and I played them back a little bit to see some similarities between the two events and the winners. Who won? How did they do it? Where did they start and what was the route that they took? So that kind of helped me prepare emotionally and sort of getting a feel for what I'm going to actually do. And I knew that in the competition atmosphere, I would perform a lot better, because I'm very competitive and I've done a lot of sports growing up. I've done intramurals at NC State, so I understand what it's like to be in a competition. I knew I was going to give it my all and I didn't want to half do it, because what's the fun of that?

Rabbit Hole: Is there one way that seems to work better to get you down the hill?

Abby: So in Raleigh, I tried to do head first and I was like, This is it. This gets me down the hill way faster.

But I didn't consider the steepness of the hill when I decided to do that. On Sunday when I participated, I knew that I wanted to be on my feet. But then when I fell, it was impossible to get back up again. Chris Anderson, a 23-time world cheese rolling champion, was there. He gave me a few tips. He said it's anyone's game with conditions as rainy as it was. But his strategy was to get on his feet. When he rolls, he jumps right back up and keeps running. I did not do that. I just kept rolling. I couldn't even stop myself from rolling. And I knew that I was not going straight, but I just went with it. I just was trying to get my body as close to the finish line and as fast as I could down the hill.

Rabbit Hole: How aware are you of what's going on in that situation?

Abby: Gravity really took me. I knew that I was rolling really fast. There's not really much adjustment you can do. When I noticed I was going sideways and the crowd was getting closer to me, I think I did adjust a little bit because I did not want to hit them and I had seen videos of people going into the crowd. And if I had done that, the race would have been over for me. I would never have won. So I had no idea that the girl behind me was so close to me. I had no idea what anyone else was doing. I'm just really grateful that somehow she did not pass me because it looks like she was going to at one point.

Rabbit Hole: Did you think that you could actually win this thing? And then after you won, what's going through your head?

Abby: I definitely wanted to win. I thought I had a chance. From March to June, I was telling my friends and talking about it a lot. I was telling all the people I met in the past month that I was going to be going to England to do this. Just random people on flights and at the airport when we would make small talk and they would ask where I was going and what I was doing this summer, and I was like, Yeah, I'm going to participate in a cheese rolling contest. And I think I even told some people, Yeah, I'm going to I'm going to win this. Just jokingly, of course, though. I didn't have full confidence. I know that there's competitors. If Flo Early—the four time cheese champion—if she were to race or if Casey Anderson, Chris Anderson's niece, who raced in the 2019 last cheese rolling competition, if they had raced, I may not have won. They know the hill a lot better than I do. And so going into it, I was optimistic, but I was hopeful, but I had no idea that I would actually win. And so winning it, I was filled with so much joy and so much happiness. It was honestly a dream come true. It was just amazing to just bask in the glory of the cheese rolling.

abby with cheese at bottom of hill
Abby, with her cheese. (Courtesy of Abby Lampe)

Rabbit Hole: The first thing you did afterwards was throw up the NC State sign. And you were wearing an NC State sweatshirt. Like, I mean, you could have worn anything that day. I know you're a recent graduate of NC State, so like why are you repping NC State so hard at this event? Like, the first thing I even heard you say is, “I'm from North Carolina!”

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Abby: I grew up a Wolfpack fan. My family has gone to NC State, most of my siblings have gone to NC State. My parents, my grandparents. My great grandfather served as the longest serving dean as the dean of engineering there. So I bleed red. We love NC State.

I really planned my outfit going into England. I wore my NC State sweatshirt to the airport so I wouldn't have to pack it. I only brought a backpack. No carry-on to England for the whole weekend. I deliberately only brought things that I needed. I bought my NC State T-shirt, but it was too cold for it in England. So I wore my NC State sweatshirt.

It's hard being an NC State fan. We've gone through so much stuff and everyone seems to be working against us. So when I won, I just wanted to represent such a great university. I had a great time. My four years there, I made a lot of friends and the professors there are great and my major, which is industrial and systems engineering, helped me a lot actually during the preparation for this event and kind of finding the most efficient way to get down the hill and adapting when I met obstacles.

Rabbit Hole: This is a follow up question from Jeremy Ashton:

Abby: Wow. I don't know if I would go that far. There are some Olympians from NC State. There are some gold medalists. I'm just happy I can get looped in with some of the athletes there. It's just incredible. It's an amazing feeling. I don't think I would call myself the best thing to come out of NC State in the 21st century because there are so many accomplishments. The women's basketball team made it to the Elite Eight this year. They're phenomenal. I loved watching their games. The football team and the baseball team, like, they're incredible. We have a great sports department and I'm just looking forward to just cheering them on next season.

Rabbit Hole: This is from Hayes Permar:

Abby: That's so funny. I'm not sure. I haven't really thought about it that much. Camp Seafarer is a great place. I was a counselor and camper there for I think maybe eight years in total. I went there every summer growing up. So that'd be kind of cool if they had a little—maybe there could be mini statues in places, so then they don't have to buy the material for all this. You can actually 3D print at NC State, so maybe they can 3D print little statues.

Rabbit Hole: Here’s one from Electronspin on Twitter: What is your Cook Out order?

Abby: It varies. But my brother-in-law thought of this: So you can get a two chicken quesadilla Cook Out tray with two sides of more quesadillas. And then if the Cook Out people are really nice, you can trade your drink in for another quesadilla. So you can get five quesadillas for one Cook Out tray. But typically I like two chicken quesadillas, maybe a corn dog, maybe some hushpuppies in a huge tea. I love sweet tea. And the Cook Out ice is phenomenal.

Rabbit Hole: Adventuring with Hillary asked: Do you get to keep the cheese? And then here’s another question from Jason deBruyn: Did you declare the cheese at customs?

Abby: I did get to keep the cheese. I shipped it and within the custom form they put it as a personal effect. So hopefully they won't open it. The guy who helped me ship it in England also put it as a “cheese tasting” rather than a whole wheel of cheese to prevent maybe some backlash in customs. But I did not take it on the airplane with me. It's going through shipping.

Rabbit Hole: From Rob:

Abby: I think it mainly was yesterday. It could also have been dehydration. And I was running on 2 hours of sleep yesterday. So there was a lot to play in with my headaches and my head pain yesterday. I'm doing a lot better today. I got probably a little over eight hours of sleep last night, which was great, and I drank water today.

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Rabbit Hole: The governor has mentioned you, and you were even mentioned on the state senate floor. NC State has really put out a lot of stuff about you. What interview is this for you? Have you been keeping track?

Abby: Yeah, I have a I have a Google calendar. I think you are 14 maybe.

Rabbit Hole: So I'm 14. And how many more do you have after this that you have set up?

Abby: I have six.

Rabbit Hole: What is that like to get just like your name dropped and like so many places around your home state?

Abby: It's crazy. It's amazing. I never would have thought in a million years that this would happen. I'm just so happy that NC State gets some good rep. I'm amazed that Roy Cooper even mentioned me. My chancellor also mentioned me. Every single day so far I've woken up and I look at my phone and I'm just in shock. I'm still in shock. Like, I just can't imagine that this is my life. It's so funny, too, because it's just from me rolling down a really steep hill.

Rabbit Hole: Here’s a question from Dave Emke:

Abby: I'm going to Greece in July, so I'll miss the Running of the Bulls. But I totally would have thought about doing it at least.

Rabbit Hole: What does your dream charcuterie board look like?

Abby: Oh, that's a good one. I would get some crackers, maybe a little bit. Other assortment of cheeses like Brie, manchego. I would get some fresh meats. I think Raleigh has a good collection of meats in the area. Jams? Yeah. I love jams on anything. Ooh, and the little pickles! But not the sweet pickles. Just like the dill pickles that are typical pickles. But they're, they're the petite ones, I think. Oh, and fresh bread. I love bread.

Rabbit Hole: Last thing. Are you going to eat that cheese?

Abby: Oh, yeah, we're we are going to eat the cheese when I get back. I guess my family is hoping to do an unveiling. I'm going to get back and maybe we can dive in. Hopefully there might be something in the mix with Chancellor Woodson and NC State. Maybe we'll have a collaboration and do a whole cheese thing.