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Going the Distance (and Then Some)

Olympian, actor, and writer Alexi Pappas refuses to sell herself short.

Photo by Joanna Forsythe
Photo by Joanna Forsythe

Around the time Greek-American long-distance runner Alexi Pappas competed on the Greek Olympic team in the 2016 Games—setting a national record for that country in the 10K—she cowrote, codirected, and starred in a feature film about an ambitious young runner grappling with pressures on and off the track. Tracktown, and her 2019 follow-up Olympic Dreams, leveraged Pappas’s athletic experience and showcased her cross-domain talent—and she may run in the Olympics again this year. But her successes coexist with private struggles: In her new memoir, Bravey, Pappas incisively recounts emotional highs and lows and explores how losing her mother at age 4 has shaped her life.

Do people have misconceptions about becoming an Olympian?

Whether it’s the Olympics or whatever people’s Olympics might be in their own life, when these dreams come true, they come true very, very slowly and then all at once. There are moments that most people don’t see. There are a million grains of sand that go into that sandcastle, that culmination. Also, we Olympians are at our prime physically—but emotionally or otherwise, we might still be learning and still be kids in some ways. The Olympics truly is a process rather than an event.

Does a goal like that require extreme long-term planning?

I think the best choice that I’ve made is to never plan more than a year in advance for my life. I keep in mind that if I did, I would probably put more of a ceiling on myself. I have embraced my own growth every year and allowed myself to outgrow my shoes. With regard to mental health, one thing I’ve learned is that it’s impossible to know our future. It’s the ultimate sign of strength, I think, to admit that you can’t know and to allow yourself to outgrow your expectations.

What equipped you to tackle such different pursuits as running, filmmaking, and writing?

I didn’t know at the outset that I could do any of those things, but I continued to allow myself to try to grow. Some of the challenging things that I saw as a child seemed impossibly terrible. So I think I had this feeling that if the impossibly terrible things were possible, then the impossibly wonderful things were, too.

Did coaches and other mentors expand your sense of what was possible?

Confidence is one of the greatest gifts someone can give. I’ve tried to seek out people who make me feel more capable, whether they’re giving me tools to imitate or literally telling me, “I think it’s OK for you to chase that dream.” Sometimes we’re lucky enough to have that from someone we’re in direct contact with. If we don’t, I think we can still find that encouragement by watching other people who lift the ceiling for us and thinking of them as mentors, even if we’ve never met them.

Random House Books
Random House Books

In Bravey, you describe a lifelong desire to matter. What does that mean to you now?

I think at its core, it came from the experience of losing my mom to suicide. Wanting to matter can be really positive. I was one of the worst athletically on my college team at Dartmouth when I first came in. I couldn’t score a team point, but I could still matter in other ways: I started showing up and cheering for races that I wasn’t yet good enough to compete in. What I had to learn the long and hard way is that you matter just because you’re here. I needed to learn that the internal problem of wanting to matter to my mom—which I never could fully satisfy in the way that I might’ve wanted to—couldn’t be solved with an external solution.

What solutions do work for you?

The way I approach it now is just understanding that if I have a feeling that’s challenging, it will take facing myself, staying put, and figuring that out more than reacting by, like, seeking something material or achievement oriented. It just takes pausing and accepting it as how I’m feeling right now, but also knowing that I won’t feel that way forever. And seeking out help.

Has your athletic experience aided your creative work?

Running can feel complicated, but it’s pretty simple—you are continuing to put one foot in front of the other. That is the way that I also approach making movies, which involves a million steps. And I accept that failure is a part of the process, too. With running, you will mostly not win the race, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a personal best or an exceptional step in the right direction. You can not win and still see it as progress.

How do you define a worthy sacrifice in pursuit of a goal?

I have tried to take out the word sacrifice from my vocabulary entirely, and I think that it’s helped a lot because if we see something as a sacrifice, it feels negative and as if you’re losing something. I think the words we use to identify our experiences are super important. The word I would rather use is choice. If you’re choosing to stay in on a Friday night, rather than go to the party, because you’re choosing to race the next day, it can feel empowering and positive.

What is your outlook for the Tokyo Olympics, postponed during the pandemic?

When it happens, I think it would be so fun to be there, whether as an athlete or an artist or both. I honestly feel really grateful that I competed in 2016, and I hope that I’m back there in 2021, but it’ll be what it needs to be. A lot of races where you might qualify for the Olympics are temporarily cancelled. I just try to control what I can, and that has changed. Before, it was always: Can you prepare for the race? Now it’s: Is the race ready for you?