Q&A with Olympic athlete and filmmaker Alexi Pappas '12
For most Olympic athletes, being the best at their sport is the pinnacle of success. But for Alexi Pappas ’12 — an Olympic long distance-runner — success on the field is not enough. Pappas is also an accomplished actor, writer and filmmaker. As she was preparing for the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, where she broke Greek national records, Pappas began writing, co-directing and starring in “Tracktown.” Also starring Rachel Dratch ’88, “Tracktown” is a story about an Olympic runner whose life is upended after she twists her ankle during preparation for the Olympic trials. In this Q&A with The Dartmouth, Pappas recalls her experiences at the College and shares words of advice with incoming freshmen.
When you were a high school senior, what made you gravitate toward Dartmouth?
AP: I had this feeling when I came to campus that Dartmouth was this big, different kind of summer camp. I felt something when I was there, and I knew it was going to be really different for me coming from California. But I knew that I would love it despite the challenges. I think, more specifically, it was the wilderness smells around campus and the sight of people smiling all around campus. I was like, “Oh, I would love to be a person sitting at that table at Collis.”
Can you talk about how Dartmouth was different from where you grew up and what making that transition was like?
AP: I felt like Dartmouth was night and day from where I grew up. I grew up in the Bay Area with no real seasons — not even a gesture at the seasons. The weather alone was a challenge, especially as an athlete training year-round. But it was something where I just needed to learn how to have that as my new normal and my new home. Academically, it was hard for me at first. I failed my first midterm, and I remember calling my dad crying on the Green. Despite that experience, I ended up graduating in the top 15 percent of my class. That was a product of sitting down with my professors and learning how to learn. I think some people come to Dartmouth feeling overly-prepared for the academics. Some people come feeling a little under-prepared, but hard work makes all the difference.
I know that you were in the Dog Day Performers while you were at Dartmouth. Were there any other student organizations that you were a part of that you found were especially influential in steering you to where you are now?
AP: Yeah. Well, first of all, the reason I joined Dog Day was because I wasn’t good enough to be on the travel squad of the cross-country team my freshman year. I was left home from the meet when all my new teammates were gone, and I was getting a million blitzes from this Dog Day group and they were like, “Come audition, just play games.” So even that I auditioned for that was this wonderful, magical thing where I was just lonely, and it changed my whole life ... I also became more involved with the creative writing side of things. I got a grant to put on a 10-minute play through the theater department. It was called “The Lonely Boy Eats Lunch with his Lunch,” and it was the most wonderful experience.
Can you tell me about the research you did in your off-term?
AP: During my sophomore winter, I did improv theater in Los Angeles, and my research was about improv theater. It was amazing. And then my junior summer, I crafted a project and got a grant to become a park performer in New York City. I was literally performing in parks and that was my research. Dartmouth gave me all these opportunities because my goal was to do theater and improv. But I couldn’t afford classes, and I didn’t want to do an off-term where I was working just to pay for the classes. I also did independent study with the theater department during my sophomore summer, and I was an assistant to a film professor.
As a record-setting athlete and a filmmaker, you have a diverse set of interests. Do you have any advice for incoming freshmen who might also be balancing different passions?
AP: Think of your different interests as choices you make instead of sacrifices. That might mean thinking of yourself as a writer who writes essays on the way to a track meet. But Dartmouth is such a great place to have multiple interests, though. Everyone is so supportive, and it’s an easy place to dip your toes in a lot of different areas. I sometimes went to DOC meetings and other clubs here and there because I had friends that were involved in them, and it just felt so normal to try new things here.
You became close friends with NCAA champion Abbey D’Agostino ’14 pretty early in your Dartmouth career when you two were teammates. Can you tell me about how that friendship formed and how you’ve sustained that?
AP: I met Abbey when I was a junior and she was a freshman, and we connected really quickly. I sort of became her mentor and helped teach her how to write. I think it really helped that we had such similar values and aspirations. I remember that we spent a lot of Friday nights staying in while everyone else went out partying. Later, we went to the U.S. Olympic trials together. Even now, Abbey is one of my best friends even though we live in different cities. She gave a speech at my wedding. And I think we’re still close because at our athletic level, there’s not a lot of people who’ve had such a well-rounded college experience. The fact that we both loved our experiences at Dartmouth just bonded us together.
I read in your article on the “Tracktown” site that you spent the earlier part of your Dartmouth career getting back into shape after not running for a little while. Can you tell me about that preparation process?
AP: Obviously, it involved a lot of running. But it’s also all about being a good teammate, even when you’re not necessarily there to score a point. It’s about showing up and being supportive. As a freshman, I went to a lot of meets when I wasn’t competing just to cheer the team on. I remember going to one competition on Halloween my freshman year dressed as a snake, and I sat next to a boy from Brown who was dressed up as the burger king. We just screamed in the stands to support of our teams. Being there counts.
If you could do your freshman year over again, what would you do differently?
AP: I really wouldn’t do all that much differently. Every year you spend at Dartmouth becomes a part of who you are when you graduate — going through four years of Dartmouth is like cooking in a crock-pot. Freshman year is like the onions that you throw into the pot first. You can add other ingredients on top, but when you’re done cooking, the onions will still be there as part of the dish. I went to parties a lot during my freshman year, and sure, you could say that maybe I should have spent more time training. But I met my husband at a party, and that wouldn’t have happened for me if I hadn’t gone out.
Do you have any advice for freshmen looking to make the most of their interactions with their peers in college?
AP: Definitely be true to who you are. Actively be yourself. Be kind, and people will take the time to get to know you. It’s just like going to camp and meeting new people. Those connections will just form naturally. If you spend your four years living in the moment, you’ll find people who share your interests. It’s also really important to find a mentor — a professor or an older student who’s willing to guide you. Lastly, I’ll add that you don’t get what you don’t ask for. I ended up getting funding to perform plays in parks across New York City, and, yeah, that might sound ridiculous. But I asked for it, and I got it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.