Olympic Runner Alexi Pappas Shares Her Struggle In A New Memoir
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Alexi Pappas wears a lot of hats. She's an Olympic runner who ran the 10,000 meters for the Greek national team in Rio. She's a filmmaker and actor. Her latest indie rom-com, "Olympic Dreams," was filmed during the 2018 Winter Games. And now she's also a memoirist. Her new book is called "Bravey."
ALEXI PAPPAS: Bravey (ph) is a word that came about from a poem I wrote, which was, run like a bravey, sleep like a baby, dream like a crazy, replace can't with maybe.
SHAPIRO: After she tweeted that poem, the word bravey took on a life of its own as a battle cry for Pappas and the young runners who idolize her.
PAPPAS: Growing up, I often chased outward-facing words and labels like strong, fierce, fast, funny. And I realized that they describe an energy you project in the world. But this word bravey felt different. It felt like a choice about the relationship you have with yourself.
SHAPIRO: It's a fitting title for her memoir. I think of Alexi Pappas as someone fiercely focused on hugely ambitious external goals. But in this book, she turns that focus inward to examine her childhood, her family and her own mind. The introduction begins with why she started running. And I asked her to read the first paragraph.
PAPPAS: (Reading) My earliest memory of running was in the first grade when a boy in my class made fun of my best friend, and I not only chased him down but caught him and stabbed him with a pencil to make sure he knew I wasn't [expletive] around. In middle school, I channeled my athletic ability in a more productive way - the track team - organized chasing. We had weekly meets at the local high school dirt track, which was very exciting to us 12-year-olds. The meets were coed, and I won them all. I liked the feeling of winning. It made me feel like I mattered. All I've ever wanted in my life is to matter.
SHAPIRO: First of all, I just love that you're running debut was, like, as an avenger, basically, stabbing a villain. But...
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) I want to ask about that last sentence, all I've ever wanted in my life is to matter. When did you realize that feeling like you matter is what's most important to you?
PAPPAS: Well, I'll first admit that I think that it wasn't the most sustainable feeling to have, and I'd learn that later in life. But where it started was the first, like, five years of my life coincided with my mom's last. And my mom took her own life just before I turned 5. And my experience with her in those first five or so years were difficult and made me feel like I didn't matter enough for her to stay.
And that 5-year-old understanding of the world really motivated me to matter to everybody else. And it fueled me to do great things. I chased, you know, an Olympic dream and other big dreams and got those things. But what I needed to learn eventually - and did learn the hard way - is that chasing those external accomplishments was never going to solve that internal problem.
SHAPIRO: You describe this period just after the Olympics in Rio where, externally, things were going amazingly for you. You had just said a Greek record in the 10,000 meters. Your movie had a distribution deal. But you were in really deep pain, and it was really difficult for you to seek help.
PAPPAS: Yeah. I think it's - that came from chasing this somewhat singular goal of making it to the Olympics for a substantial period of time and never planning for what came next. And when it did end, instead of slowing down and pausing and recognizing the impact of an event like that, I was searching for what was next. And that came from that childhood want to always matter, always be performing. And that's unsustainable, but I didn't understand it at that time. And so I spun out and scrambled to figure out what the next big goal was, what was my next thing instead of pausing and just letting the impact of that event absorb and that period of my life just, you know, have its catharsis, if you will.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. You know, in the forward to this book, the actress Maya Rudolph says Olympians are the closest thing we have to superheroes. Does being perceived as a superhero make it more difficult to talk about these periods you're describing?
PAPPAS: Totally, because the strangest feeling is when the way the world sees you is completely opposite of the way you feel or see yourself. And that makes it hard to feel like you should need help or can - are allowed to get help. And it made it really difficult for me until my dad, who had seen what my mom went through, made me get help. And that's what I needed.
And then when my doctor helped me understand that my brain was a body part, just like my leg, and it could get injured like any other body part, and it could also heal like any other body part. And suddenly, it was not about Olympian or not or superhero or not. It was just this body needs to heal, and it's going to take some time, and it can heal.
SHAPIRO: It's interesting to me that in the book you actually describe asking for help as a superpower. And in this part of the book, you're talking about when your mother was no longer around, asking other mothers to teach you how to cook or do other domestic things. You're not talking about, like, the big life events that you asked for help with, but just the small events.
PAPPAS: I think eventually we start to lose that muscle that wants to have mentors or ask for help. And I just have tried to just keep exercising that muscle because I knew how helpful it was for me growing up and also how generous people are to allow someone who needs help to imitate them or be by their side without judging them or, like, watching them watch them, if that makes sense.
PAPPAS: And then the awareness that somebody might be watching me now, and that everything I do and say, someone might take and run with, as I did when I was little. And that awareness feels like a privilege and also a responsibility.
SHAPIRO: So having, like, excavated all of this and interrogated this about yourself and your motivations and your values, you're still running. Why?
PAPPAS: Yeah. So I ran the 10,000 in Rio. And I've always had a curiosity for the marathon. It - you know, it started in Greece, where I'm competing. And I still have not had that feeling in a marathon that I had in the 10K in Rio of complete mind and body synergy. And I'm curious if I can get there, you know, exploring the outermost bounds of my mind and body in the marathon. It's also a good way to see a place. Like, whether, you know - however long I compete, I like...
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) See new countries. Compete in the Olympics.
PAPPAS: Right? It is an efficient and fun way to experience the world, regardless of the goal.
SHAPIRO: Alexi Pappas - her new memoir is called "Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain And Other Big Ideas." It's been great talking with you.
Thank you so much.
PAPPAS: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: And if you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, there are free trained counselors available 24/7. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.