Why Olympian Alexi Pappas Still Sees the Future as "Inevitably Bright" — and How You Can, Too
Nine days after Tokyo 2020 was officially postponed, I caught up with Olympian, writer, and Olympic Dreams filmmaker Alexi Pappas from afar. It was morning in LA — where I live and where Pappas shares a home with her husband — but late evening in Greece, where Pappas had been training for Tokyo 2020 since early March. Now, she is stationed in the country indefinitely, hunkering down amid the coronavirus pandemic. As we settled in for a casual interview over Instagram Live, Pappas told me she'd mostly come to terms with the delay of the Games and our new, shared reality.
"I think now I've wrapped my head around the new timeline, and also just that it's not in my control, and that I can't go home," Pappas told me. "So it's better to just accept the reality, as the whole world has, and just be grateful that I'm in a safe place. I have people taking care of me here, and the people that I love are safe. Even though I don't know when I'm going to see my husband again, and that's a little bit daunting."
"I think right now, part of what we all have to do is look at the future as something that is inevitably bright, and plan for it to be possible."
The Olympics decision, while devastating, is one Pappas and many of her fellow athletes have publicly supported. "It's absolutely the right thing," she said. "Because to think that the Olympics could exist as an isolated event — I know they dabbled with the idea of just the athletes competing — is so against the Olympic spirit. For it to exist in a vacuum is impossible . . . It will hopefully be a grand celebration when it does happen."
Despite being separated from her husband and filmmaking partner, Jeremy Teicher, Pappas seems to be weathering the global crisis as well as any of us can be expected to weather it. If you follow Pappas on Instagram, where she regularly shares notes addressed to her fellow "braveys" — a term she coined to describe courageous strivers everywhere — you'll know this kind of positivity and hopefulness is quintessentially her. "I think right now, part of what we all have to do is look at the future as something that is inevitably bright," she said during our conversation, "and plan for it to be possible."
Read on for more from Pappas on how she's shifting her training regimen in light of the Olympics postponement, her unexpected road to elite athleticism, and how we can all channel our inner bravey in tough moments like this.
POPSUGAR: Have you altered your training since the Olympics were officially put on hold?
Alexi Pappas: Yes. Normally the month or two before a big marathon, you're doing really intense, long workouts. You might go for a two-hour run, and within it do variations. Now, we have really stepped back and been like, "OK, what are the areas of weakness that we now have the luxury of focusing on? How do we grow rather than shrink during this time?" I've seen people feel panicked and shrink, or just stay still, be petrified. What we're doing is trying to grow. What that means for me is a lot of pain, because my weaknesses are many.
PS: You just wrote a beautiful story about running as community for Sports Illustrated. Do you have any advice for people out there who are trying to feel that sense of community when we can't physically be together?
AP: For one thing, there's community more than ever, in that everybody is going through this thing. Everybody's feeling it in their own way, and hurting in their own way. We can't assume that anybody is any less challenged than the next person. I remember one race in particular where I realized that was true. It was a 10-mile race, and I was next to a girl who I'd never been in a race with. She was an Olympian. She was very good — very intimidating — and was not showing a bit of pain. And I was feeling pain. I felt like I was breathing hard. And then a minute later, she's just out the back. I realized that I can't assume that even an Olympian next to me — I wasn't an Olympian yet — isn't feeling pain.
Pappas with her Olympic Dreams costar Nick Kroll (left) and husband and director Jeremy Teicher (right)
PS: Your new book, Bravey, is coming out soon. It's a memoir in essays, so can you talk about what was maybe the hardest for you to write about?
AP: I think the book will probably surprise a lot of people, because running is a backdrop, but it's really about growing up without my mom. That was the hardest thing I faced. I lost my mom to suicide when I was 4, almost 5. Just recalling the few memories that I have of her . . . they were really difficult. I think to see that side of pain — that really, really bad pain — at a young age has framed pain for me in my life. You might see the kite tail of how I feel in my Instagram posts, you might see the poem at the end, but the book is more like the root, like, where did this really come from? I think a book is a more appropriate format for those origin stories than an Instagram post. So, I'm so excited for people to read the real core of me.
PS: How does being an athlete play into your roles as a writer and filmmaker?
AP: I think so many people see writing, or they see running, as something like: "This person was born with these gifts." And it's true. You were born with the body you're born with and maybe it has a certain potential. But more than anything, I think what I've found through running that's carried over into the creative world is that it's something that you can put work into, and learn, and be a student of, and improve. And I saw that because I was the worst on my team at Dartmouth when I got there. I was the worst in the league. I was not good.
PS: But that's important for people to hear, because I think we often assume every Olympic athlete was always the star of everything that they did, every team they were on.
AP: Yes! I could not run four miles without walking. I grew up in California and went to school in New Hampshire and I remember feeling so far from home, and far in the way of my body was not doing what I wanted it to do. I was all the way across the country and my dad told me, "Lex, just try to keep showing up and try to always matter while you're not mattering in the ways that you want to." I gave myself a window of time to commit to continuing to show up. And I think so many people stop before they've given themselves a fair enough chance at showing up over and over again. And it doesn't mean I needed to show up for five years — it meant I took it a year at a time. I was like, "I will show up every day for a year, and then we'll evaluate at the end of this year." I think a lot of people quit too early.
PS: You're obviously approaching this moment with grace and thoughtfulness and hope for the future. But I think even those of us that are lucky to be doing as well as we possibly can be are still having hard moments. What's keeping you going when times do get hard?
AP: I've definitely had my moments here. I had a nightmare that I missed the flight home and wasn't going to see Jeremy. And of course, there was never a flight, but I woke up crying. And then another instance: during workouts here, I've started to exceed a fitness level that I haven't seen in myself since before Rio. At a certain point in these workouts, I've hit a pain threshold, and I've cried. I'm not sad, and it's not like, "This hurts so bad that I'm crying." It's a little raindrop that has come out, and I think it's grief. And I felt better afterwards. What I've told myself is the word "stay." It's very simple, but it's just to stay. Stay on your own team. Stay in this moment. Put another foot in front of the other. Let this emotion play out. Because to hold the tears in would have been really silly — sillier than you feel when you're running around crying. I hope that helps.