It’s safe to say that every Olympic athlete has spent years, if not her entire life, preparing for that one moment. But what comes immediately after the dream is realized? That’s the moment 2016 Olympian Alexi Pappas and her husband, filmmaker Jeremy Teicher, wanted to explore in their new film Olympic Dreams.
“You know, loss is not the right word, because it’s not loss,” says Pappas, who finished 31:46 in the 10,000 meters at the 2016 games in Rio. “You just have this feeling afterwards, that you’ll have a plan for the moment after, and that was the moment I was most interested in.”
Olympic Dreams, which which will be released by IFC Films on February 14th, is the first feature film to be shot entirely on location at an Olympic Village, during the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang as part of the IOC’s artists-in-residence program. The film stars Pappas as a U.S. cross-country skier named Penelope. She’s 22, fresh out of Dartmouth (where Pappas and Teicher also went to college), and at the Olympics completely alone. Each time she calls her coach back home–her sole lifeline–for moral support, it goes straight to voicemail.
Unlike most sports films, which tend to center on and build to the main event, Olympic Dreams is not about Penelope’s race, which happens, almost as an aside, very early in the film. Instead, it focuses on the hours and days following her race, as Penelope wanders the Olympic Village, struggles to make friends, and eventually forms an unlikely bond with a 37-year-old volunteer dentist named Ezra (Nick Kroll). In a sense, it’s a love story, but to call Olympic Dreams a romantic comedy would diminish its emotional authenticity. This is a bittersweet film about two searching, vulnerable people who don’t know what’s next, and encouraging one another to go find it. Its closest cousin may be Lost in Translation.
It’s also very much in line with Pappas’s grander project to encourage girls and young women to find their inner bravery–“something you feel,” she says, as a opposed to their “strength” or “fierceness,” which she identifies as more outward-facing words. (She’s even written a book about it, Bravey: Essays on Chasing a Big Life, to be released by Random House this August.)
Olympic Dreams, which Teicher shot entirely himself and blends documentary and fictional elements, features cameos by dozens of athletes who were actually competing at the 2018 games, including the American skiers Gus Kenworthy and Morgan Schild. But rather than seeing them compete, we get to know them in their downtime–in the dorms, in the game room, and at parties, where they’re shown not so much as Olympians but as regular people with unique hopes, doubts, and fears.
“When we look at an Olympian, we think that we’re seeing these fully formed humans,” Pappas says. “We are seeing someone at the peak of their physical career, but they’re still evolving, still figuring it out.” She says she and Teicher wanted to portray their humility in the film, to “make them more human and more accessible and more real.”
Pappas sees humanizing elite athletes as essential not only to those who look up to them, but also to the athletes themselves. “If we look at someone who’s extraordinary and treat them like they’re an alien, then they’re going to start to see themselves differently,” she says. “I think it’s important that we treat everybody, regardless of their performance, like human beings.”
Pappas cites her friendship with Mary Cain, whom she first met when Cain was recruited by Alberto Salazar to run for the Nike Oregon Project and Pappas was training at the University of Oregon with Jordan Hasay. Cain was just 16 at the time, and as she revealed to the New York Times last spring, subjected to emotional abuse by Salazar and under enormous psychological and physical stress. She battled suicidal thoughts.
“We had really different circumstances,” Pappas says. “She was obviously, you know, kind of a child star and I was the worst runner when I started at Dartmouth, but we had a similar experience of, like, who is my mentor? And sometimes we interact with less useful ones than others. Both of us really needed that, and I think we’ve become a support for each other in a way that I’ve appreciated.”
Pappas’s mother committed suicide when Pappas was just 4 years old, so she grew up without that “keystone” mentor, as she puts it. Instead, she says she “latched on” to role models she admired and copied them. “I was like the perfect Mia Hamm fan,” she says, referring to the U.S. National Women’s Soccer team player. “I wore sweatbands because Mia Hamm wore sweatbands.” Now that Pappas is increasingly in the spotlight herself, as a runner, actor, and writer, she is mindful that anything she does might also be something her fans will emulate. It’s a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly.
“It’s not useful for me to put out, like, ‘I just ran 20 miles at 6:15 pace,’ because I don’t feel comfortable for a 15-year old to imitate that,” she says. Instead, she tries to impart her work ethic, and the importance of simply being yourself. “I’d rather put out, like, you know, ‘I just wore my bun on this run, and that’s something you can do too.’”
And while she admits that some athletes or writers “may be born with a certain je ne sais quoi,” or innate talent, both pursuits are, in the end, disciplines. “The most improvement I’ve seen in myself is from my hard work,” she says. And, like her character in Olympic Dreams, she wants to show that whatever might come from all that work isn’t nearly as important as the process itself, “of always growing.”
For Pappas, who has dual Greek-U.S. citizenship and holds the Greek national record for the 10,000 meters, that means breaking the country’s record in the marathon next. She missed it by less than a minute, in January, at the Houston Marathon, where she ran 2:34. But it’s all good.
“I guess I’m just the kind of person who thinks it’s okay that I didn’t accomplish all my goals today,” she says. “Because then what would I do tomorrow?”