Campus

Poetry and Play: Pappas Beyond Running

Words by Sarah Hovet / Photos by Jeremy Teicher

 

“it is wow. there’s no thing like this thing.”

 

What does an Olympic athlete do after the Olympics? For Alexi Pappas, the first woman to represent Greece in the Women’s 10,000 Meters at the Olympic Games, the answer is to run a few legs of the all-night Hood-to-Coast Relay. It is to make a trip to the Jaqua Center with fiancée and creative partner, Jeremy Teicher, in search of a white board for a brainstorming session concerning their next film project. It is to write a piece entitled “My Pal, Pain” for the prominent feminist newsletter Lenny Letter, to road trip from Eugene to Los Angeles to pick up her car, to schedule interviews with publications from the New York Times to Ethos Magazine.

Pappas’s zest for returning to Eugene flavors all these endeavors. Almost every time she mentions the city, she tacks on “which is great” as if so caught up in its mulch scent that she must verbalize her rapture. She moved to Eugene in 2012 after completing her undergrad at Dartmouth to take advantage of a fifth year of eligibility for cross country and indoor track. She enrolled in the interdisciplinary studies program in the graduate school, which allowed her to design her own master’s degree through three respective individualized programs: entrepreneurial business, creative writing, and English/filmmaking.

In Eugene, Pappas can run on the Ridgeline Trail System, her personal favorite, a matrix of soft trails looping into various build-your-own-runs. The city served as inspiration for her film Track Town, which she co-wrote and acted in. She thrives living in a place where people recognize her on the trails and voice their encouragement. Many times, they are active runners themselves.

To Pappas, Eugene’s Track Town status means that encouragement continually flows back and forth on the bark chip trails, transmitted from one athlete training for the next big race to another athlete recovering for what’s next.

At Dartmouth, Pappas studied creative writing and poetry, describing herself in various interviews as “a serious poet who became a serious athlete.” She identifies the poets of the New York School, a group of American artists centered in New York in the 1950s and 1960s known for its avant-garde experimentation, as her role models when she first discovered poetry. The New York School poets are known for their spontaneous and immediate style.

She characterizes her favorite poetry as “whimsical but meaningful,” a style that also marks her signature Twitter feed, @AlexiPappas – a mixture of poetry fragments and inspirational words that earned her the number-one rank in the New York Times list of “8 Olympians Who’ve Got Social Media Game.” In yet another New York Times article, journalist Sam McManis describes her Tweets as “part Tony Robbins motivational, part Tom Robbins surrealistic.” Playfulness within the limitations of form defines her style. Twitter’s 140-character limitation only adds to her creativity.

A Tweet from September 7th captures an exchange between a girl and a goldfish, with the girl asking “good luck hug?” to which the laconic goldfish replies “can’t.”

Pappas simply craves the galvanization of words on the page: “Even if it’s a poem I don’t like, I get stimulated by seeing words, refreshing my vocabulary, reading other people’s words,” she says.

Collaboration as illumination features in Pappas’s running as well as her mental and creative work, especially in her performance during the women’s 10,000 meters in Rio. Accolades go to her coach of the past three years, former Olympian Ian Dobson, for preparing her to be at her physical pinnacle. But competing only fueled Pappas so much, though – contributing allowed her to match her mindset to her physical condition. Being in a world record-setting race would intimidate some athletes. It energized Pappas.

“I was my best running self out there and to be in a race where a lot of people are their best running selves … you felt like you were contributing, you were a piece of this really remarkable puzzle,” she says.

 

“hold my hand & take me with you & i might just lift us both up didnt i tell you im a balloon”

       

In order to achieve the sense of community and empowerment she feels in Eugene, Pappas traveled to Greece to train for Rio. There, she primarily trained in the mountains near Karpenisi. She also visited the stadium in Athens where the very first Olympics were held. She saw it once before when she was younger, as a mythic site of one-days and might-bes. But now she saw it as an about-to-be Olympian, with the games a month away. Moreover, training in Greece gave her the opportunity to get to know her teammates and for the Greek community to get to know their representative on the national stage.

Greek citizens expressed support and pride when they found out Pappas would launch them into the women’s 10K for the first time. She received notes and letters. On one occasion, a young Greek runner approached her and told her his whole town would be with her in Rio, in spirit. Then he gave her a T-shirt representing his local running club team for her to take to Rio. These experiences equipped Pappas “to go to Rio with a sense of purpose.”

In her last big race before the Olympics, Pappas experienced a disappointment. She put on the Greek uniform for the first time to compete in the European Champs in Amsterdam and then tripped and fell in her race. Favored to place high, Pappas got up and kept running with diminished prospects. She finished the race lower than she had hoped, covered in blood. But when she saw her teammates from Team Greece post-race, they said, “You are a true Greek.” She teared up not from her bloody wounds, but from feeling she resonated with her teammates. Pappas claims a high finish could not compare to the chorus of “You’re definitely a Greek, you’re definitely a Greek.”

In Rio, Pappas finished seventeenth with a time of 31:36. After all the press coverage of her leading up to the Olympics, finishing in the middle of the pack might smack of anticlimax. But for Pappas it was a personal best. For Greece a national first.

 

“not just for fun, but definitely fun”       

 

Where does the energy come from? Pappas didn’t only return to the U.S. to run the Hood to Coast after the Olympics. Her recovery is a brief prelude to base training for another season with the Nike Oregon Club Elite.

“Doing it all again, but better,” Pappas says with relish.

It has to do with a sense of possibility. No one is required to be an elite athlete. No one is required to make movies or write poems. It is all optional. But Pappas identifies this very “sense of choice” as the source of her energy.

The choice involved is infinite and purely personal: jotting down notes while flipping through a poetry anthology or getting off the couch on a gray day to run six miles. Pappas sees choice as the essence of meaning, no less than the substance that makes up our lives. She emphasizes the need to tackle these choices with “optimism and a sense of wonder.”

This sense of wonder also appears in her poetry. In her poem “Twig,” published in Women’s Running, human toes are a “kingdom” to a twig lodged in a runner’s shoes, the runner the “best taxi/a twig ever had.” In a YouTube video about her senior poetry thesis, “Lion Eat Me At One Mouth,” Dartmouth professor of English Cynthia Huntington says “she’s wakening this language” to describe what she terms the “energizing” aspect of Pappas’s poems. A sense of wonder accomplishes this “wakening,” this transforming. It transforms the choice to run into the choice to define her life.

 

“like most days, my dreams will have the last word”

       

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