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10,500 athletes won't win a medal in Rio; meet Alexi Pappas

Courtesy of Alex Pappas

RIO DE JANEIRO -- There are 11,551 athletes competing at these Olympics, all striving for that elusive gold, silver or bronze medal. While Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles have won multiple golds, around 10,500 of the athletes will go home without a single medal of any color. After the years and years of training and sacrifice, that is devastating for some. But they and others still will take home lessons and emotions that are nearly as important as any medal.

And perhaps more so.

"The Olympics to me are permission to continue wanting things that I may or not get,'' distance runner Alexi Pappas said. "Because I see so many people around me trying so hard as well. It's motivating to be around that. The Olympics are permission to keep believing in yourself because hundreds of other people believe in themselves, and they want something. And it's a scary thing to want something but it's less scary to be in a whole village of people who want something they may or may not get. ...

"There's an element of it being a celebration. People want to do big things here, but everyone recognizes that it's an achievement to be here and that the competitions themselves are celebrations.'"

Of Greek-American lineage, Pappas grew up in the Bay Area and attended Dartmouth. In Rio, she competed for Greece in the women's 10,000-meter run, finishing in the top half (17 out of 37 entrants) with a personal-best time of 31:36.16. Like every Olympian, there is more to know about her than just her time in a competition.

Pappas is also a writer. And an actress. And a filmmaker. And a poet. She writes poems for Women's Running Magazine, including a recent one titled "Before, Olympics 2016,'' about such pre-competition preparation as knowing "where bravery hides'' so she can draw it out.

"Every word matters in poetry,'' Pappas said. "That helps me as a writer to appreciate words, and it also helps me as a runner. Because in poetry there are certain limitations, but there also is a lot of creativity within it, and I think that running is similar.''

"Everyone at the Olympics is among the best, not just the ones who win gold. There is a remarkable energy to be around." Alexi Pappas

Pappas and her fiance, Jeremy Teicher, co-wrote and co-directed the recently completed film "Tracktown,'' which is set in Eugene, Oregon (aka, Tracktown USA). Based on some of her own experiences in the sport, the movie is about an intensely focused runner, played by Pappas, who competes at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene. The film also stars SNL's Rachel Dratch and Andy Buckley of "The Office."

She eventually wants to become a full-time filmmaker -- "I would like to make things with Jeremy for the rest of our lives'' -- but she also wants to run as long as she can.

A top runner and vibrant personality in the States, Pappas could have competed for the U.S. but chose to run for Greece instead -- she was able to thanks to dual citizenship since her grandmother is from Greece. She said it was an easy decision.

"My goals are to compete at the highest level, which you can do regardless of where you run. But also to have an impact on the sport,'' she said. "I'm doing that already in the U.S., but I think I can extend it to a place where distance running was born. But Greece has never had the leadership or role models in distance running. This was an obvious opportunity for me.''

While Pappas' time in the 10,000 was more than a minute behind Ethiopian gold medalist Almaz Ayana's world record, Pappas said the race was the highlight of the Olympics. That's because the Olympics are not just about winning or medaling. You can draw something just from being here and competing against the world's greatest in your sport, regardless of what that sport is.

"Everyone at the Olympics is among the best, not just the ones who win gold,'' Pappas said. "There is a remarkable energy to be around."

Pappas was saying this outside the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre, where she had just watched Greek teammates compete in synchronized swimming. She turned to Teicher and her father, telling them how odd it was that she and they were Olympians despite vastly different sports. But that is another beauty of the Olympics. It is about athletes in so many sports.

"We're different creatures, but we're all trying to be at the highest level of something very specific,'' Pappas said. "And none of these things are life or death matters. Win or lose here, you're going to be OK. But that you care about something so much that you almost make it a life or death thing is really special. And to be around it is emotional. We're all doing things that are not life and death every day, but if we can dedicate ourselves to it like these women I watched today, that's the best.''

That's the lesson of the Olympics. Medal or no medal, the key is dedicating yourself to doing your best in what you love, whether that is running, swimming, poetry, film, technology, medicine, education or anything at all. Win or lose, succeed or not, the experience alone can be equally important.