Alexi Pappas: What a Summer Olympian learned from Winter Olympic athletes

(Photo: Alexi Pappas)

When I competed in my first Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2016, it was exactly that: a first. I had only competed in an international competition twice in my life before, and never on a stage as big as the Olympics.

In Rio, I was razor focused on my 10,000-meter track race. I wanted to run a personal best and break a national record. I wanted to finish in the top half of the best in the world. Thanks to my focus and my training, I accomplished all of these goals.

My days were structured. In the days leading up to my Olympic race, I did the exact same thing each day: slept in, woke up, ate, trained, went to the gym to stretch, ice bathed, ate, napped, trained again, ate again, and slept. I noticed and amused in the whole experience, but I tried not to get too involved in anything social – so, yes, I loved seeing athletes celebrating in the Athlete Village pool outside my building each night, but I closed the curtains before 10 p.m. so I could sleep.

In Rio, I was more of an observer. In Korea – as a member of the new Olympic Artist in Residence program – I became outgoing. For my film, I asked athletes to be themselves in short, improvised scenes with either myself or my co-star, Nick Kroll. What this meant is that I met and spent quality time with so many different athletes! For one scene, I wandered into the Athlete Village game room and sat next to a “skeleton” athlete from Jamaica.

He explained to me (my character) all about how in skeleton (riding a small sled down a frozen track while lying face down), you use a steering technique that is much like the children’s song, “head, shoulders, knees, and toes,” – meaning, steer with your head first, and only use the toes for emergency. I loved learning directly from athletes about techniques like this, because it allowed me to appreciate the challenges and goals of each sport. I’m not quite brave enough to throw myself down an ice track head first, but I do appreciate that all Olympic athletes can relate to one another.

I also met a snowboard halfpipe athlete from Ireland, who told me he hopes to become a pilot once he’s done competing as an Olympian because it’s the best way for him to continue “flying.” My heart melted in the good way as I learned that all of us Olympians do what we do because we love how it makes us feel. In running, I love how I am using my whole mind and body to propel myself forward. I like how simple running is. I like how I can improve by putting in time and effort.

My most memorable conversation was with Team USA gold medalist Jamie Anderson, who has an interaction with my character in the free hair salon available to athletes in the Village. We talk about success, but we also talk about failure – and there’s where it got interesting. My character Penelope (and me in real life) is always so curious about how someone like Jamie approaches rejection and failure. She’s experienced it, of course, but that’s not always the most outward-facing side of a gold medalist. I look forward to sharing her perspective with the world through my films, a perspective I found to be refreshing and positive. Jamie is truly an example of positivity, resilience, and also groundedness – she encourages my character Penelope to enjoy the Games. They are, after all, a once (or maybe twice!) in a lifetime experience.

I spoke with a freestyle mogul skier, Morgan Schild, about the differences between a sport where judges determine the winners and sports like running and cross-country skiing where the athletes are directly competing against each other. Morgan told me that her competitors feel like they’re all on one big team against the judges, and whether they win or lose isn’t entirely up to them. Running, of course, is completely different. I knew that there were judge-based sports in Rio, but I never got the opportunity to really hang out with any synchronized swimmers or divers – I was too focused on my own competition!

My character in this film – I play Penelope, a cross-country skier – was inspired by a few real-life cross country athletes: namely, my college friend, Erika Flowers, and 2018 gold medalist Jessie Diggins. My character wears glitter just like Jessie! I spent time researching and chatting with cross-country ski friends to learn about their sport so that I could portray my character Penelope from a place of truth. It is so important to me that people like Erika and Jessie are proud of what I put on screen.

I now have a much deeper appreciation for the Olympics than ever before. I wouldn’t have thought that was possible after my experience competing in Rio, but now that I’ve had a chance to peek “behind the curtain” and learn more about the countless moving pieces that come together to create the Games, I am even more acutely aware of the immense passion, creativity and dedication that goes into each Olympics. As an artist, I felt lucky to truthfully capture the experience of competing and being at an Olympic Games, and feel that this project will make my fellow athletes very proud.