Full time athlete, full time creative. Alexi Pappas is doing it all
I drive through the quiet streets of Mammoth, California, twisting through narrow roads cut with walls of snow that seem to be growing higher every minute. I’m meeting Mammoth Track Club’s Alexi Pappas before the team drives over 1,000 meters down the mountain to a dirt road in Bishop, California, for a midweek morning workout. Mammoth’s latest snowstorm has none of these athletes phased, and everybody on the team, including Alexi, arrives at exactly 8:15am. Alexi has clearly been awake for longer than I have, as her perkiness exudes a day already packed with accomplishment.
Alexi is a Greek Olympian, and is about to premiere a film at Austin’s famed South by Southwest Film Festival. Since competing in the 10,000 metres at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, she’s shifted her focus from the track to the tarmac as she looks to next conquer the marathon distance. Meanwhile, she’s continued to blossom creatively as a successful filmmaker. While logistically impossible to have two full-time jobs, both requiring a person’s full reserves of passion and dedication, Alexi seems to have found a loophole.
“I’m only ever doing one thing at one time. So this morning, we’re doing all this stuff with the film -- a lot of the post-production happens after you get into a festival and before the festival happens… so I do that, and then the team van is a really good chance for me to transition. I try, when I’m here, to really be here. And I try, when I’m home, to, like, change my clothes and become… creative. It’s very deliberate.” As we’re in the van, I chat with Alexi’s teammates as she spends the 45 minutes listening to music, transitioning from early-morning-filmmaker to still-pretty-early-morning-Olympic-athlete.
Alexi decided to make a permanent move to Mammoth after having done altitude stints in the small mountain town while living and training in Eugene, Oregon, prior to the 2016 Olympics. American running icon Deena Kastor and her husband Andrew are now Alexi’s teammate and coach, respective. The duo welcomed Alexi with open arms when she chose to join them and the team in Mammoth indefinitely.
“Deena is such a role model…” Alexi says with a smile, speaking admirably of her teammate, an Olympic medalist and American Record Holder in the marathon. “The chance to be on a team with her, I would never turn that down. Eugene was wonderful, but I was more of a track runner there, so when I moved up in distance after Rio, I knew that this would be a good place for me to raise my ceiling.” Mammoth also suits her continuing creative career well, as her husband and creative partner, Jeremy, can easily drive to Los Angeles for meetings — “Like he could be there tonight,” she says, “so for our creative career it’s better as well, and it just felt like this overall smart growth choice.”
"I try, when I’m here, to really be here. And I try, when I’m home, to, like, change my clothes and become… creative.
It’s very deliberate.”
Alexi studied creative writing at Dartmouth College, where she developed a knack for poetry. Although still prevalent in her social media presence, which is riddled with sonnets, limericks, and the like, Alexi’s poetry studies quickly transformed into something more meaningful for her. “I liked poetry, but it felt very isolating, and it felt almost like running if you didn’t have a team. And for me, I probably wouldn’t run at this level if I didn’t have a team, and similarly with the writing, at a certain point I just craved that collaboration that I loved in sports.”
Alexi met and fell in love with Jeremy at Dartmouth. They went on to co-write his first film, Tall as the Baobab Tree, and then Tracktown, which they produced in Eugene, Oregon. Both films blend fiction with reality, she explains, “You’re like, this character could exist… so we do a lot of that, and right now it’s a sweet spot for us because we have this unique access to these specific worlds that others don’t see everyday.” Their latest film, Olympic Dreams, which was shot in PyeongChang and premieres in March at South by Southwest, is the first fictional movie ever to be shot in the Olympic Village.
As they were granted permission for just three people to produce the film in the village, she and Jeremy wore many hats. Nick Kroll, Alexi’s fellow lead actor in the film, was the third piece to the puzzle. “Nick and I improvised the whole script, we did each other’s makeup, which was very minimal… Jeremy directed it, did sound, and filmed it - so he was a one man band, which is really hard, and he did phenomenally.” With Jeremy working to make their filmmaking flourish full-time, Alexi will step back when need be, able to hone in on her running. If, say, napping one afternoon is the most helpful thing for her training, Jeremy will let her sleep, even if it’s at the expense of a meeting. “For the moment,” she admits, “my body needs to go to the athletics first. In the long term, I think there will be a time when I hang up my competitive shoes, and use my body for the arts more, and won’t need to sleep nine hours a night.” For now, though, running still piques Alexi’s curiosity, and it’s opening creative doors as well - “Like for us to be able to shoot Olympic Dreams — it’s really cool.”
Alexi’s near future consists of a competitive 10k, a spring half-marathon, a fall marathon, a book deal, and a television show in the works. While this docket of responsibilities would make most heads spin, it’s obvious to me that Alexi wouldn’t have it any other way. After the team finishes their workout in Bishop, we get back into the van to drive back up the mountain. Alexi and I go from talking about running, to talking about her film premiere, to discussing the memoir she’s writing called “Bravey”, and her enthusiasm over any one topic does not ever waver. She explains that she doesn’t just want to be mediocre as an athlete or a filmmaker. “I have to make really good films, and I have to run as fast as I can. I feel like each has had a long time to grow on its own and they have started to really overlap.” She says the one thing that keeps her sane and focused is, simply, knowing her goal.
“That’s something that my dad taught me. He just asks me, whenever I have a decision -- what’s your goal? And as I’ve grown, my goals have changed, and so the choices I make are evolving too, but it’s just a simple thing, and everybody has their own goals. But you have to know your goals first, or you won’t know what you need.”
The majority of elite runners I know have one goal, requiring every ounce of their heart and soul. The frustration of waiting for a Garmin to sync might be the highest stress of the day. When aiming for athletic perfection, the day-to-day tasks, although monotonous, can be all-consuming. Alexi simply does not have that one-track mind that is so universal amongst professional athletes. She has two lofty goals, simultaneously running parallel and intersecting, and she knows what she needs to achieve them.