Olympian, Actress and Filmmaker Alexi Pappas discusses her new book

Alexi Pappas opens up about post-Olympic depression in a new memoir

The athlete and filmmaker opens up about her memoir and what’s next

Alexi Pappas has competed in the Olympics and produced and starred in two feature-length films. Now, the athlete, actress and filmmaker is taking on a new challenge — the memoir. 

In Bravey, Pappas examines the highs and lows that shaped her. She writes about starring alongside Nick Kroll in her film, Olympic Dreams, premiering her film at South by Southwest and befriending Maya Rudolph — who wrote the book’s foreword. And she reflects on the depression that gripped her after the 2016 Olympics, the sleepless nights and relentless fear that she’d suffer the same fate as her mother, who died by suicide when Pappas was a child. 

“For every fun moment of victory in this book, there are uncomfortable and humiliating moments, too. I am the sum of all of them,” she writes. “I want to show you the whole picture, the bad pain and the good pain. This book is gore and glory.”

Pappas told KCM she wrote Bravey in part for the young runners that look up to her. She’s cultivated a following on social media, drawn to her rise from middling collegiate runner to Olympian. Her thousands of fans call themselves Braveys, a word Pappas — who holds an M.F.A. from the University of Oregon — wrote in a poem she shared online. 

KCM spoke with Pappas about the book, the world of distance running, what she’s working on now and more. 

KCM: What motivated you to write this book?

Pappas: I think what motivated me to write this was really understanding that there’s a time and place for every type of storytelling. Social media is one outlet that people like professional athletes and actresses often use, but it can only tell so much of the story. And it’s often very fragmented. I thought about how a younger me would look at some of the things that I post on social media and just not understand the whole story. And so the book, I felt, was a nice medium to tell the whole story, to show the journey from my more challenging years as a young girl to where I am today.

In the book you talk about your mother’s struggle with depression and suicide. What was the process of sharing that like for you?

The book is structured as essays for a reason. It’s not a chronological story of my life, it’s more of an emotional arc. And what I wanted to do was just take people through what really is an evolving and alive relationship with someone who’s no longer here. My very earliest memories of her were really challenging and confusing. And I think my relationship with her has evolved and come full circle with my own experience with post-Olympic depression. 

It really wasn’t until I experienced it that I understood her as a human being. Writing it was a process of trying to find words to describe an experience. And I think that was the greatest challenge, because it’s one thing to experience something, and it’s another to find the words to put other people in your shoes.

You go into detail about your own experience with depression. Can you tell us what it was like to open up about that?

After I competed in the Rio Olympics, which was truly an experience of a lifetime — I ran a personal best, I set a national record in the 10,000 — I realized that I had been spending my whole life chasing a singular goal. And when it was done, I was scrambling to find what the next peak would be. I was so accustomed, as a lot of Olympians or high achievers are, to chasing an external goal. I didn’t pause and reflect and allow the enormity of that experience to sink in. 

But when I started feeling depressed, I really didn’t understand it as depression. It wasn’t until my dad really made me get help, because he saw some red flags that he might’ve seen in my mom, that I understood that I was sick. It was Dr. Arpaia, who I talk about in the book, who helped me understand that depression was like when you fall and you have a scrape on your knee. Except that scrape isn’t on your knee, it’s on your brain. 

Once I had that realization, that the brain is a body part that can get injured like any other and also heal like any other, I suddenly felt empowered. I felt like I could get better. The shame and self loathing went away and I focused on healing. 

I think that profound change in the way I saw my mental health was something I wished I understood a lot younger. So I tried to go into as much detail in the book about my experience, because I think that the more specific we can be, the more broadly we can reach people — the more relatable it is.

In one essay, you discuss over-training among young female runners and write that the “distance running world is not structured to embrace female athletes.” Can you expand on that?

What I experienced, and what I still observe in the system of raising female athletes, is that there’s not an embrace of the word “development.” An adult female athlete is more capable and strong and durable than their child counterpart, but to allow that transition to happen it needs to be accepted that that process is healthy and good. 

It was by happenstance that I wasn’t even allowed to run while my body was evolving. So I luckily went through puberty as we’d hope every girl goes through it. But that’s not the case for every young female athlete. So often the system is structured, so that we try and suppress that and see it as a bad byproduct when it’s actually a healthy ingredient to long-term success and health. I hope that chapter gives young girls and coaches and parents permission to embrace puberty and embrace being an adult, female athlete.

What advice would you give to a young runner?

One of the chapters in the book is called “You Make Your Own Cape” and it’s about reframing your goals and rewriting your story to help dictate your life. But I think the bigger message there is, there are ways to take any experience and look at it a different way and to pave your own path. And I, as much as any other, did not have a guaranteed path to where I am today. 

There are also literal vocabulary changes that they can make. I think becoming a Bravey — replacing can’t with maybe — I think these are switches we can flip and become who we want to be starting right now. So I hope that these Braveys who find the book, find something to latch on to, imitate and make their own. That’s how I became who I am too. 

Now that the book is about to be published, can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now?

I have a television show in the works that’s really exciting. It’s set in the Olympic world, and I think it’s going to be something the world’s never seen before.

I have two feature films that I’m working on with my partner, Jeremy. We’ve made films set in the sports world before, but one of the films is more of an emotional reality that I know well. It has a mental-health piece to it. So we’re putting that together. Actors are reading the script right now, which is always a thrilling feeling. And we’re putting together a project that we’re hoping to do at the Olympics, which is more a documentary project. 

And I’m running still. I still have some curiosity in running the marathon. 

Written and reported by Rachel Uda.