Alexi Pappas: Searching for seashells for the sandcastle of me 

Greek/American Olympian, filmmaker and author Alexi Pappas.
Greek/American Olympian, filmmaker and author Alexi Pappas.

The Olympian, filmmaker and author spoke to Tokyo 2020 about everything from a childhood marked by tragedy to fulfilling her Olympic dream, conquering Hollywood and dealing with mental health issues. 

From the outside looking in, Alexi Pappas's life achievements may seem like an unmitigated story of success. Olympic athlete, critically-acclaimed filmmaker, Hollywood actress, published author – for somebody at the beginning of the third decade of her life, her ability to seemingly succeed at everything she turns her hand to is nothing short of extraordinary.

But for every accomplishment the California-raised athlete has chalked up in her life, there has been an equal amount of trauma and grief.

And dealing with her successes has been as important as managing her setbacks.

Becoming someone that matters

There is often something that lights a fire under those that go on to be Olympians – a driving force that gives them the strength and determination to overcome physical and mental boundaries in pursuit of their athletic goals.

In the case of Pappas, the flames of that fire were stoked by tragedy.

Growing up, Pappas's mother battled with mental illness, spending long periods away from her children as she was confined to mental health facilities. When she was at home, tending to her needs took so much time and effort that the young Pappas felt somewhat invisible. And when her mother took her own life when Pappas was four years old, the trauma led the future Olympian to believe that the reason behind it was that she hadn't mattered enough.

"I lost my mum through suicide and my young five-year-old experience was that I must not have mattered enough for her to stay. And so I felt like I've been very driven my whole life to matter and make up for what I felt that I was lacking. And that was really potent and powerful," Pappas explained in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.

I think a lot of Olympians can relate to that feeling of being driven by something deep within them, whether it's a trauma or some other desire.

The need to matter gave Pappas the determination to strive for her dreams. But, much later in life, she realised that building your dreams on things outside of yourself can have disastrous consequences when those things are taken away from you.

"I think a lot of Olympians can relate to that feeling of being driven by something deep within them, whether it's a trauma or some other desire.

"And it's really powerful but it's also really unsustainable to be driven by something that demands that we chase these external accomplishments.

"And I did get there, I got to the Olympics and it changed my life and I loved it, but when I got there I thought maybe I would have this feeling of being complete.

"I loved it and it changed my life, but I certainly realised that I needed to feel like I mattered simply because I existed and not to chase these external accomplishments to solve what was an internal challenge or problem."

Greek/American Olympian, filmmaker and author Alexi Pappas.
Greek/American Olympian, filmmaker and author Alexi Pappas.
© JoAnna Forsythe.

Olympic state of mind

In many ways, Alexi Pappas had an unconventional childhood. Brought up by a single father – of whom she says "I feel very grateful and proud of the way he raised me" – the young Pappas had to learn many things on her own.

But while dealing with everything from hair lice to social relationships alone may seem like a daunting prospect, Pappas is thankful that she was able to navigate and discover the world from an independent standpoint – away from the mollycoddling parenting many of her childhood friends grew up with.

As she explains in her book Bravey: "All the most important lessons in life we have to learn for ourselves. The sooner we realise this the better."

I had a meat sponsorship, a fish sponsorship, a veggie sponsorship, a bread sponsorship, a coffee one.

It was just food but these are really the tools we need.

Pappas's determination was evident during many periods of her development, but perhaps one of the starkest examples was during her quest to make it to the Olympics. Without the funds required to train full-time, the newly-graduated athlete with an Olympic dream went out and found the sponsors she needed herself. And these weren't the shoe or clothing deals that athletes often rely on, these were sponsors that allowed her to survive.

A pound of steak a week in exchange for social media coverage? You got it. A bag of vegetables for a plug on Instagram? Why not.

"I didn't need so much, I needed enough. And food is one of those things that we need as athletes. And so it did take a certain kind of scrappiness to be like, OK, a butcher sponsorship," she recalled.

"I had a meat sponsorship, a fish sponsorship, a veggie sponsorship, a bread sponsorship, a coffee one. It was just food but these are really the tools we need."

Pappas showed the sort of practical grit that makes those with less determination to follow their dreams uncomfortable.

But if it was what she needed to become an Olympian, it was 100 per cent worth the effort.

"What does it take? It takes, one, a commitment to your goal. Two, an awareness of what you actually need - like put it on paper, what are the actual things you need, tangible and intangible? And then three, the feeling that the world is abundant and those things are there. It's just us creating a circumstance where we're just asking for it."

Dealing with prejudice

As an athlete, as a film star, as a woman, Pappas has dealt with prejudice of one type or another throughout her career.

One example was during her teenage years when she gave up running altogether for an extended period of time after her coaches wouldn't allow her to practice more than one type of sport at school.

It was a rule that only applied to females.

Ironically, this break from athletics allowed Pappas to experience something that young female athletes often miss out on – the chance to grow up and allow their bodies to develop naturally.

"We can be so single-mindedly chasing excellence and performance that we forget about longevity, health and development," she explained.

"And so I think that there's like a vocabulary shift we could have to understanding that we're more capable as female athletes but we have to let our bodies develop."

When she returned to running, Pappas was so out of practice that she crawled to the finish line of her first race and came in dead last. But the determination to succeed pulled her forward in pursuit of the small but glowing embers of an Olympic dream.

In later life, one of the first reviews of her movie debut, Tracktown, described her body as "sharp and hard and angular" – the physical presence of an Olympian having made the writer uncomfortable as he weighed it against the Hollywood norms he was used to encountering on screen.

But none of this stopped Pappas moving forward.

She graduated from college magna cum laude, competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics and went on to write and star in not one but two Hollywood movies.

From the outside looking in, her life was one success after another.

The advice I would give [other athletes] is to really give it like a month or more,

to just actively not have a goal besides recovering and respecting what we just did.

The highs and lows of an Olympic athlete

There is an inevitable low that follows the high of competing at an Olympics. The subject of your focus for so many years of your life comes to an end, and any unrealistic expectations you have about it have the ability to transform themselves into disappointment.

For Alexi Pappas, that low was accentuated to such an extent that it became a complete crash.

"There's an adrenal fatigue associated with chasing any dream, and especially a dream like this. I wanted, the minute the Olympics were over, to pivot and know what the next goal was and to have started chasing it yesterday," Pappas recalled.

"The advice I would give [other athletes] is to really give it like a month or more, to just actively not have a goal besides recovering and respecting what we just did.

"And I just didn't do that."

Rio 2016 was the culmination of a dream Pappas had nurtured since childhood and the definition of why she mattered in the world.

She did not know how to let it go.

What began with a choice to continue training when her body was crying out for rest, turned into a disastrous combination of sleeplessness, injury, bad business decisions and depression.

It came to the point that contemplating suicide became a daily fixation. She imagined that she was turning into her mother.

But Pappas's salvation came when her father and brother emplored her to reach out for help. Finally, she found a cognitive behavioural therapist who explained to her that she was ill and going through an "acute crisis". Like a physical illness, the mental illness she was encountering would take time to heal.

"First your actions change, then your thoughts, then finally your feelings," her doctor told her. And slowly, but surely, she began to understand that it wasn't inevitable that she followed in the footsteps of her mother. In fact, she could and would forge her own path.

"Unlike my mother, I choose to let people in. I choose to share what is going on in my mind so that I’m never alone with my torment. I conquered my post-Olympic depression because I shared my feelings with my dad and then, finally, with a really good doctor. I was not alone with my torment, and I know that is why I’m still here today." – Alexi Pappas, Bravey.

A brighter future

The word 'dream' can be found 117 times in Alexi Pappas's book Bravey. She is a self-confessed dream-chaser who dared to reach for the stars.

In one chapter, she recalls a conversation with a renowned sports doctor, who commented that “very few people actually try to be great.” Greatness takes a type of commitment that not many people are willing to submit themselves to.

With Pappas, you have the feeling that her determination to turn dreams into reality would see her succeed at anything she turned her hand to.

If the door didn't open with a knock, she'd force her way through.

It is the sort of determination that has seen her fulfil Olympic dreams, Hollywood dreams and now her dreams as a writer.

I just want to keep building on the sandcastle of me and see what seashells I can find

– and just keep making it.

With Tokyo 2020 less than six months away, the multi-talented athlete is looking to experience another Olympic dream in Japan – just as soon as she finds the right event.

"I'm trying the marathon, which is a new event, and it's one that I still am trying to master. And so I hope to be in Tokyo," said Pappas, who competed for Greece in the 10,000m at Rio 2016. "I most of all hope that the world is doing whatever it needs to do to be safe, but I think that the next Olympics is going to be a really hopeful moment for the world."

But the Alexi Pappas who travels to Tokyo will not be the same one who triumphed and crashed and burned during and after the Olympic Games in Rio. Today's Alexi Pappas matters because she herself exists, not because of any external goal, or accomplishment or dream she is chasing – no matter how worthy they are.

And so while Tokyo may represent another chapter in her story, she has the tools, experience and support group to deal with whatever life throws at her when the curtain goes down on this year's Olympic Games.

"I feel more equipped for my next goals than I did for my previous goals. With the mental health stuff, for example, I know how to spot signs a lot earlier and do what athletes call their 'pre-hab'.

"I think we're all an accumulation of everything we've done, and so I just want to keep building on the sandcastle of me and see what seashells I can find – and just keep making it."