Alexi Pappas: The night before my first Olympic Games

University of Oregon alum Alexi Pappas and her coach, Ian Dobson, take a seat on the Olympic rings. Pappas will represent Greece in the 10,000 meters on Friday on the opening day of track and field competition in Rio.

RIO DE JANEIRO – In middle school physical education, I was very good at the typical PE class sports. We rotated between the classics: kickball, softball, soccer, etc. I was good at those things. When it rained, though, things were different. My middle school, like many, was the type where PE class was moved inside when it rained. Often, this meant a movie day. But I remember one day in particular when our teacher decided we would sumo wrestle instead. It was, after all, PE class.

She arranged us in descending height order and had the two smallest girls wrestle first. The loser was determined by who was pushed out of the masking tape circle first. The winner of that round would wrestle the next tallest girl and so on, until someone would face the tallest girl. I remember feeling nervous because I had never wrestled before, besides fighting with my big brother Louis – how to wrestle? How to do anything for the first time? While my middle school self was very prepared to handle normal PE conditions, I was not as good at handling new challenges such as this.

I was on the smaller end and would wrestle second. Everyone watched every round, obviously – this was middle school, where we learned most things by watching and then trying. I used my best little sister survival skills to stay in that circle. And I won.

Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas competes in the 10,000 meters at the Rio Olympics on Friday. She will represent Greece.

Oregon Track Club Elite’s Alexi Pappas competes in the 10,000 meters at the Rio Olympics on Friday. She will represent Greece.

I won match after match until I was facing the tallest girl in the class, who seemed to be twice my size. She won this time and thus won the whole thing. But my second place in the class of over 30 was respectable and far better than I’d ever faired in pick-up wrestling matches with my brother at home. Most of all, I showed myself that I could handle a new and unexpected challenge with some composure and lots of grit.

It is about 10 years later and I am still doing things I’ve never done before. Recently, I flew from Eugene to Greece to train with new teammates for a month, chase a national title, and compete in my first international competition at the European Championships in Amsterdam. I was not sure what to expect. What had changed from middle school, though, was that I expected the unexpected.

When I descended windy roads into the city of Patras, Greece, for the Greek National Championships, the coastal city was experiencing an unexpected and unusual heat wave – temperatures in the 90’s and humidity in the 60% range. Also, my toe had just healed from being broken, and I would be wearing spikes for the first time in over a month. Based on my personal bests, I was not only hoping to win the race, but I also wanted to run a decent mark in my debut race in Greece, the country which I will proudly represent in the 10,000 meters at the 2016 Olympics in Rio tomorrow (Friday, 7:10 a.m., Pacific).

The night before the race in Patras, dinner was served at 9 p.m. Nobody warned me because this is normal eating time in Europe. However, 9 p.m. is also close to my prerace bedtime. But I went with the flow and tried to stay calm. I felt more vulnerable than my middle school self, but I tried to stay composed. I reminded myself that for anything to happen in this world, there must first be a first time. There will always be a first time. And I also remembered that many athletic feats are achieved when things don’t go exactly as planned.

To handle the heat, I warmed up later than usual and stayed inside as much as possible. On my warm-up, I doubled the size of my breasts with the help of ice bags stuffed inside my sports bra. I visualized myself pushing through the tough moments in the heat. Even though the heat felt like soup, I thought about how muscle is stronger than air. It worked. My toe showed up like a brilliant queen, too – no pain. I won the race and claimed the national title.

When I arrived in Amsterdam to compete in the European Championships 10,000m, things were smooth until 4,000m into the race when a competitor was tripped behind me and fell in front of me, legs in the air, kicking. No level of athleticism could have saved me. I went down. It’s hard to prepare to fall. I had a coach once who made us deliberately fall in the grass and get back up again during workouts but not even this prepared me for a fall in front of thousands of people at an international competition. I got up, though, and finished the race covered in blood. For me, this was a win in the unexpected way.

Alexi Pappas, who will become the first Greek female athlete to compete in the 10,000 meters at the Olympics on Friday, checks out the Olympic venue.

Alexi Pappas, who will become the first Greek female athlete to compete in the 10,000 meters at the Olympics on Friday, checks out the Olympic venue.

I feel that part of growing as an athlete is learning how to take ideal conditions and maximize on those, and also how to take not ideal situations or race scenarios and also make those okay and even great. Sports are about pushing boundaries and trying things that have never been done before. I’m happiest when I am in situations where I may succeed but I also may fail. It is why I chose to run with hopes of qualifying for the Olympic Games. I wake up every day a little bit nervous in the good way and I hope this is always the case because it means I am doing something I care about.

It’s hard to predict what I’m about to face as I will race in my first Olympic Games tomorrow. I assume it will be some metaphorical combination of sumo wrestling, heat and falling down. I can’t know until tomorrow. What I do know is that I am going to race. When I race, I will do my best, even if I trip. If I trip, I am going to get up and finish. When I finish, I will be an Olympian and I hope I will feel proud.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas

Training with the boys at altitude

How I spend my Sundays

The longest run

Run like your best 12-year-old selves

On being happy to compete

Watching greatness

Staying connected

My growth as a runner

Running as a team sport

Race decisions can be invisible 

Trust your race plan 

Outside my comfort zone

On budgeting willpower

What the President said

Channelling your inner racing bug

No easy way to prepare for marathon pacing

Alexi is an avid tweeter and her thoughts can be  found @alexipappas.

Alexi Pappas graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College before running off to compete in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene. Alexi then joined the Ducks as a University of Oregon fifth-year student, helping lead the team to two NCAA championships in 2012 and 2013. She currently runs professionally for the Nike-sponsored Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene, Oregon, with her eyes on 2016.

Alexi is also a writer, filmmaker and actress. She co-wrote the script for the award-winning feature film Tall as the Baobab Tree, and is currently in post-production on her second film, Tracktown. Alexi was a Top 9 Nominee for the 2012 NCAA Woman of the Year Award, and is also a graduate of the UCB Theater improv program in LA/New York City.