Alexi Pappas: What the President said

Alexi Pappas NCAA Championships Oregon Track Club Elite runner goducks
Oregon Track Club Elite's Alexi Pappas didn't compete in an NCAA Championship until her senior year at Dartmouth College. She is shown here competing in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Penn Relays. (Photo courtesy of Dartmouth College)

EUGENE, Ore. – My family stood together in the small waiting room just outside the Oval Office, nervously smiling like a group of kids waiting their turn at the top of a waterslide. My brother Louis stood at the front of our pack, ready to walk in first – he had spent the past few years working on President Obama’s staff, and this was his last day on the job. The Oval Office door cracked open and laughter spilled out into the waiting room. The family ahead of us walked out, and there he was: the President of the United States, standing just a few feet away.

We shook his hand one by one. Louis introduced me as a professional runner from Eugene, Oregon. The President’s attention then focused directly on me. First, he told me about his visit to Hayward Field during his 2008 campaign. A wonderful place, we agreed. At that moment, Mr. Obama looked me directly in the eye. “You have a gift,” he said. “You were born with a body that was meant to run long distances, more than the average human.”

I was taken aback. Right away I knew what I wanted to say in response … but dare I risk embarrassing my brother and disagree with Mr. Obama? I started by thanking the President, and then I couldn’t help myself – I added that my performance in the sport is actually a result of hard work, motivation and support from my community.

This was not the answer the President wanted to hear.

“No, no,” he said, “Your body is able to flush out lactic acid better than the average person – running is what you were born to do.” Mr. Obama’s energy and tone were so confident and convincing that he could have told me the moon is really made out of cheese and I would have agreed with him. I nodded and thanked him. Besides, our five-minute meeting time was up. I left the Oval Office feeling very honored, but I also couldn’t stop thinking about what the President had said.

The idea that I was meant to run, that I was born with a special ability, felt like it subtracted from my own willpower and motivation to pursue something to the fullest and at the highest level.

President Barack Obama with his high school basketball team.

President Barack Obama with his high school basketball team.

Later that afternoon, I recalled to my brother’s co-worker what Mr. Obama said. He thought for a moment, then told me that Mr. Obama was a serious basketball player in high school, and competed on one of the best teams in the country. He grew up tirelessly training, and it wasn’t until later that he hung up his jersey and focused his attention elsewhere – though basketball is still near and dear to his heart. The thing was, as he grew up he discovered that there were certain physical barriers that prevented him from advancing to compete at the highest level, no matter how hard he worked.

Perhaps for the President, who surely has the work ethic, drive and discipline to work his way to the outermost reaches of his potential, there had to be some other reason – some reason out of his control – for his inability to achieve his dream of playing pro basketball.

Maybe the President had a point. Do natural gifts really matter more than trained ability?

Alexi the Runner

In middle school and early high school, I think it’s safe to say that natural ability is a huge factor in athletic competition. Firmly rooted in my wiry body, between bouts of growing pains I managed to become one of the top young runners in California.

Then, life and friends pulled me in a different direction and I started to become more seriously involved in soccer. By junior year I was focusing all my time on soccer, student government, theater and any number of typical teenage girl activities. But when the college recruiters started visiting, they were more interested in Alexi the Runner. I also saw more of a future for myself in running – I knew I was built well for it, as my middle-school self had proven, and I liked the idea of committing myself to a sport where I could do some damage.

President Barack Obama TrackTown USA Vin Lananna USATF UO track and field

In 2008, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama paid a visit to the Oregon Twilight Meet prior to giving a campaign speech that night at McArthur Court. UO director of track and field Vin Lananna was more than happy to escort the former senator from Illinois onto the track at Hayward Field. (TrackTown USA photo)

I was also curious about the limits of my own natural potential, of which I had only scraped the surface. One point to Mr. Obama.

I quickly found, however, that I couldn’t just leap back into running after two years of not training and expect to pick up where I left off. As a freshman at Dartmouth, I was more fit to run laps up and down frat row than I was to run circles around a track. I had never run more than six miles at one time. I finished dead last in one of my first cross-country races. Clearly, something very bad had happened to my speedy middle-school self. Was I not a good runner anymore?

My first few semesters in college were a long trudge towards getting my fitness back. Also, I was not yet aware of just how important the mental side of running was. I didn’t understand how much it would help me to develop my intangible assets: hard work, support from my community and mental toughness.

In time, six-mile runs became 10-mile runs, and six hours of sleep became nine. I learned what it meant to work hard and to believe that the hard work was working.

My coach, Mark Coogan, believed in us, and his stories about running in the Olympics and other big races made us feel like we could just maybe get there, too. What Mark taught us is that you have to believe you can compete, believe you can keep up with the runner ahead of you, and in time the belief will become reality. The mental aspects of running take just as much training as the physical aspects and can be developed over time.

Hard work and belief

It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I would compete at an NCAA Championship for the first time, but I did finally get there. At that point, my naturally speedy middle-school self felt long gone, replaced by an Alexi built on years of training and dedication (and lots of sleep). Stepping up to the start line for the lead leg of the distance medley relay at the 2012 NCAA Indoor Championships felt like something I had fought for and earned. Minus one point from Mr. Obama.

When I moved to TrackTown USA to run a fifth year with the University of Oregon Ducks, the reservoir of support, belief and hard work I had discovered and nurtured while at Dartmouth grew. I remember running for the first time on Pre’s Trail and hearing someone yell, “Go Ducks!” And, in my two-and-a-half years living in Eugene since, this feeling of support has only grown. Now even my local butcher, coffee roaster, organic farm and fish shop owner support my endeavors. Now I am bigger, stronger and faster. I am an Oregon Track Club Elite runner.

I have improved with every season through some wild combination of hard work, patience, support, belief … and also a few drops of the natural talent that Mr. Obama pointed to. But I don’t know if a finishing kick comes down to being born gifted, working hard or belief. We can’t know. It is probably some combination of the three. And, since I can only control two of those things – hard work and belief – those are what I am going to spend my energy on.

As for natural talent, I believe it’s tucked away somewhere inside of me, just like my growing-pain middle-school self. I’m glad it exists. I hope it exists, but I won’t think about it too much.

Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas: 

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.