All that Alexi Pappas remembers from her first race — a 5K run in Napa in 1998 — is that it felt “so long.”
Pappas, then just 8, completed the race in just over 30 minutes, walking parts of it with her then 12-year-old brother Louis, before waiting another three and a half hours for her father John to finish his race — the Napa Marathon.
John raised Alexi and Louis as a single father after the suicide of his wife Roberta when Alexi was just four. His encouragement helped her overcome a spotty prep career and early collegiate struggles to become not just an All-American, but an Olympian 10k runner. As she aims to return to the Games as a marathon runner, she returned home this past weekend to speak with runners of the San Francisco Marathon.
“I really like seeing her coming back to the Bay Area,” John said. “I kind of feel like she didn’t really finish her athletic stuff here, so it’s nice to see her come back and share some of her talents in San Francisco.”
Despite her premier status as a runner and burgeoning fandom – well-regarded by an army of young aspiring female runners called “braveys” for her authenticity and general aplomb – the Alameda-born Pappas maintains that her steadfast relationship with her father has been critical to her career.
After Roberta’s passing, John sought to give his children “as many opportunities as they could have” and, in Alexi, he saw a bundle of untapped athletic potential.
A lifelong sports fan, John encouraged his daughter to try a wide variety of sports including soccer, basketball and softball, but was never one to force his kids into sticking with an activity that they did not enjoy.
At Oakland-Bishop O’Dowd, she had placed third in cross country state championships as a freshman and fourth as a sophomore, but was forced to make a choice by her cross country coach: Either commit completely to cross country, or leave the team. Not ready to give up soccer — she was a member of a local year-round travel club and made the Northern California Olympic Development Team as a 15-year old — or other extracurricular activities, she gave up running competitively for two years.
“He did a great job of making me show up and try something and only continue doing it if I really loved it,” Pappas said of her father. “He always let me find my way in and out of things on my own probably knowing that if you squeeze an ice cube too tight it will slip out.”
Though Pappas did not run seriously her junior and senior years, her times as an underclassman were good enough to be recruited by several colleges. She eventually chose Dartmouth, but in her first two years, she failed to score a single team point in either cross country or track.
During her first real rough patch as an athlete, Pappas turned to her father. He had anticipated his daughter’s struggles after a long break from running. His message: “Just keep showing up.”
“Don’t expect that you’re going to get it all back overnight,” he told her. “You may not get it back. You never know. But you’re never going to know what’s going to happen unless you do it.”
Pappas took her sophomore winter off train in California with a group of former elite runners called the Santa Monica Janes.
“He didn’t give us the option to not try our best and that’s all he ever asked of us too,” Pappas said. “He didn’t ask us to be the best; he asked us to try our best.”
As a junior, Pappas became a regular scorer for both her cross country and track teams, and at the end of her spring track season, she set a school record in steeplechase, placing second at Outdoor Heptagonal Championships. As a senior, she broke her own steeplechase school record by 30 seconds and qualified for Olympic preliminaries in the event, an achievement that would help her be named one of nine finalists for the 2012 NCAA Woman of the Year.
By the time she finished her collegiate career with a fifth year at Oregon, Pappas had amassed five All-American honors and a cross country team national championship with the Ducks, but there was more to come.
John’s Greek heritage enabled his daughter to qualify for the 2016 Olympics under the Greek flag. She wanted to run for Greece instead of the United States because she wanted to peak at the Olympics, instead of at qualifiers. She became a Greek citizen in January of 2016, and after meeting the Olympic standard of 32:15 at Stanford on May 1, running a 31:46.85, she was headed to Rio.
Pappas placed 17th in a field of 37 at the Rio Games, one of eight runners to set a national record. She smashed the previous Greek mark with a time of 31:36.16.
“Just sitting there in the Olympic Stadium and seeing all those people, all those countries and seeing your daughter at the starting line,” John said, “sort of thinking back on the path to get there, it was just like ‘Wow.’ I was overwhelmed. She earned it, every bit of it.”
Now, Pappas, 29, has her eye on qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Games as a marathoner, and is currently training in Los Angeles. She took a break, though, to come home to the Bay and inspire other runners. On Thursday, she held a Q&A with local runners at Sports Basement in Berkeley, and on Friday, she led a shakeout run from Fort Mason.
“I think … how you become the best is not squeezing too tight on being the best,” Pappas said. “And I think that’s how I achieved my Olympic dream. I don’t think I felt desperate for it; I think I felt like I was going to give it my best shot.”