Olympian Alexi Pappas inspires “Bravies” as athlete, artist

Photo of Alexi Pappas
Joanna Forsythe/Courtesy

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Content warning: suicide, mental health.

In the spring of 2019, I was accepted into Cal. Far from being elated, I felt dread. I was suffering from a textbook case of imposter syndrome: I did not feel I deserved to attend such a prestigious school, and I was sure that I would flounder in my classes and struggle to make friends. I also knew that if I was so full of fear, I would not be able to thrive.

Seeking a source of both bravery and comfort, I did what any other high school cross country athlete would do: I direct messaged Alexi Pappas, a professional runner, asking for advice. She responded, and I carried her words with me throughout the entirety of my freshman year. I repeated them to myself, over and over again, until I truly believed what Pappas had told me — that I belonged at Cal.

My story is not unique. A large number of young athletes have looked to Pappas as a mentor figure, and she has become a strong role model for the athletic community.

Pappas is an Olympic runner, a filmmaker, a poet and, most recently, an author. She doles out uplifting, original poetry and raw advice to her followers, building a community of people who call themselves “bravies.” After sharing pieces of her life story on social media, Pappas released a full memoir, “Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas,” on Jan. 12.

“When people see an Olympian — or however else they see me — they think I must have grown up in a certain way, but for me, it was truthfully much less of a straight line. It was very circuitous and labyrinthian. I think a book is the right place to share all of that,” Pappas said.

Pappas was born in Berkeley and grew up in Alameda. When she was four years old, her mother committed suicide. Pappas spent her child and young adulthood contending with the gaping absence of a female role model. Her formative moments, the good and bad, the big and the small, were collected in the East Bay.

“It was a good place to grow up and learn about myself. It’s a curious place. It begs for us to be curious, too,” Pappas said.

She often sat with her dad at bakeries on College Avenue, eating takeout salami and bread while people-watching. She fondly remembers nights spent getting pizza on Telegraph Avenue with her high school friends or sharing kisses with her high school boyfriends in the East Bay woods. She was a ball girl for the Cal women’s soccer team and idolized many of the players. Her childhood room was covered in signed Cal soccer posters.

As a high school cross country and track athlete, she often logged miles at Joaquin Miller Park in the Oakland Hills.

“I know that trail like the back of my hand,” Pappas said. “It felt longer back then than it does now. It’s fun that you can feel yourself grow up by revisiting old trails.”

Growing up is the central narrative of Pappas’ memoir. “Bravey” confronts both loss and triumph, comedy and sadness. It is peppered with her own poetry and prose, making it uniquely her own. Not only does “Bravey” offer a window into the mind of an Olympian, but the reader watches Pappas grow up in real time.

“A book really let me talk about what I was thinking when I did certain things. And the coolest part about reading a memoir is you learn how people think,” Pappas said. “It felt like the right time because 10 years from now, for example, I wouldn’t write the same book. I think I just grew up, and it was the right time to talk about growing up.”

Photo of Alexi Pappas

One of the toughest periods of Pappas’ life story occurred after the 2016 Rio Olympics, where her dual citizenship allowed her to represent Greece in the 10K — the first female athlete of the country to ever race this particular event. In the months following what had been the biggest race of her life, Pappas began suffering from clinical depression. She was private about her personal struggles: Even as she slipped away from herself, Pappas still acted as a role model for young athletes. She was still trying to be their rock, even if she herself felt like sand.

But eventually, the bravest thing she could do was find help.

“Sometimes, with help, we will be happy later that we got it, but it doesn’t always feel good in the moment,” Pappas said.

Pappas started taking antidepressants and regularly seeing a therapist. She spent months prioritizing herself, focusing solely on what would make her better.

“I kept visualizing myself as a soup. It’s going to take a lot of ingredients, and we don’t know exactly which one is gonna do the trick. It wasn’t just medication, but I knew that was one of the ingredients that was worth trying,” Pappas said.

Many of Pappas’ metaphors conjure positive images of food — something that might help the large number of female distance runners who suffer from eating disorders.

“Metaphors, in general, whether about food or sandcastles, are a nice way to get people to see something a little differently or take themselves out of the equation,” Pappas said.

Pappas enjoys the juxtaposition between these two identities: athlete and artist. And while the outcomes are different, the processes of training for a marathon and writing a book are not that different.

“It’s a lot of showing up to many, many days that people won’t see until the end. There are really unglamorous days and moments that go into it, even though the end result is pretty and buttoned up: You’re in your uniform at the start line or you have your book cover,” Pappas said.

More than anything, writing a memoir and toeing the line of an Olympic race both require one overarching force — courage. Writing about her mother’s suicide and her own struggles with mental health, Pappas made herself extremely vulnerable.

But this vulnerability can inspire others to become the best version of themselves. Pappas herself might not even realize it, but the longest chapter of her story could be written by all of the people she has guided and inspired along the way.

Life is hard, and it almost never goes quite as planned. But as Pappas makes clear, it is OK if life gets a little messy. Sometimes, the messiness of life is necessary — maybe it means you are getting closer to tasting the fruits of your labor.

“That was something I really craved when I was a young girl, thinking, ‘Can someone please help me with this whole growing up thing?’ If I can give someone else a vocabulary that was so epiphanic to me — whether it’s about mental health or chasing dreams or overcoming anything — then that’s a good thing to do,” Pappas said.

Sarah Siegel covers men’s swim and dive and is a deputy blog editor. Contact her at [email protected].