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Olympic Dreams Unfold on and off the Silver Screen for Alexi Pappas

"Tracktown" film set for initial showings on June 4 in Los Angeles and July 5 in Eugene, Ore.

“Tracktown” film set for initial showings on June 4 in Los Angeles and July 5 in Eugene, Ore.

Alexi Pappas is either crazy ambitious or a visionary. Or maybe both.

For the past two years, the 26-year-old professional distance runner from Eugene, Ore., has been working on a feature-length film about a young woman much like herself who is trying to qualify for the Olympics. All the while, she had been training like a fiend and trying to improve her own running with hopes of punching her ticket to Rio de Janeiro this summer.

Now it’s all coming to fruition in splendid fashion. Editing of the 90-minute movie, called “Tracktown,” wrapped up in early May and will debut on June 4 at the L.A. Film Festival in Los Angeles. A second showing has just been announced on July 5 in Eugene, Ore., during a break in the action at the U.S. Olympic Trials track meet. (Tickets are $10 and go on sale on May 26 at TicketsWest, University of Oregon EMU and Eugene-are Safeway stores.)

In the meantime, Pappas found an opportunity to represent Greece in this summer’s Olympics—she has U.S./Greece dual citizenship—but she had to first achieve the Olympic qualifying standard in the 10,000-meter run. She did that on May 1 at the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford, running to a new personal best of 31:46.85 for the 25-lap race on the track, earning her the chance to compete in the Rio Olympics in August.

“I’m so excited to have this amazing opportunity to run in the Olympics for Greece,” she said after earning the qualifying standard. “It’s a dream come true.”

Pappas co-wrote and co-directed the movie with her partner, Jeremy Teicher, who has earned acclaim for two previous indepedent films. Pappas also plays the lead role of a fictional 21-year-old track star named Plumb Marigold, who is training at Hayward Field in Eugene in her quest to make the Olympics.

Andy Buckley (The Office, Jurassic World) and Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live) play supporting roles, while several top-tier American runners (including Nick Symmonds and Matthew Centrowitz) make key cameos. Pappas, who trains with the Nike-backed Oregon Track Club Elite program in Eugene, started her college career at Dartmouth College, but then transferred to Oregon in 2012. She will become the first woman ever to represent Greece in the 10,000-meter run in the Olympics. (The event only became available to women in 1992.)

After finishing her collegiate running career with Oregon in 2013, Pappas signed on to run professionally with the OTC Elite. After developing the story and writing the script in late 2013 and early 2014, they did a lot of the filming in 2014 and finished up in early 2015.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever take the deepest of breaths to relax, but with every phase of pursuing the Olympics and making a film, the next phase is always a welcome thing because it means things are going well,” Pappas says. “We’re certainly busy, but it’s work that we want to be doing so now we get to pursue it to the fullest.”

“After we finished the film and nailed down the debut, we had to move on to the next phases to get ready for that,” Pappas says. “Now, having qualified for the Olympics, it’s a huge relief and a huge privilege but it’s a huge gift too. Now it’s time to get ready and be able to show up in Rio as prepared as possible.”

As for representing Greece in the Olympics, Pappas will race in the 10,000 on Aug. 12 in Rio de Janeiro. She’ll be flying to Greece after the premiere of the film in Los Angeles to meet some of her Greek teammates in person. Her grandmother was born in Greece and now lives in Maryland, but she still has many family members living in Greece.

“On a personal note, it really makes my Greek family very proud,” she says. “And it’s been really exciting to see the support from Greece after I earned the qualifying time. There is an electric energy I can feel from overseas.”

When did the idea of making a running film in Eugene first come up?

Teicher: “It’s hard to pinpoint an exact date, but there was a window of time we decided to make this movie was in the summer of 2012 after Alexi ran the Olympic Trials. That was a seed planted in our minds. ‘Oh, it would be fun to make a movie here one day.’ Then it became more serious when Alexi finished running for Oregon in 2013. I was finishing up work on our first film, “Tall as the Baobab Tree” and was traveling to film festivals and Alexi had just signed on to run with OTC Elite. She had really fallen in love with the town and I said, ‘OK, I’m going to move to Eugene’ and harness our energy to make our next film. It was a long process, but when you’re working in a reality situation where you’re working around elite athlete schedules, you have to factor that into the timeline of the project. Things didn’t happen exactly the way we expected them to, but that’s kind of what happens when you’re making an indy film. But you embrace that and that’s part of the joy of it.”

How autobiographical is the story? How much does the main character, Plumb Marigold, compare with your own story?

Pappas: “The story is inspired by my real-life experiences and observations of professional runners pursuing this Olympic dream, but it’s not directly about one individual story or person, myself included. We like to sort of think of it as a patchwork quilt of personalities and occurrences woven together to capture the emotional core of this pursuit.”

Was there ever a concern about making a film about competitive running?

Teicher: “When I first met Alexi, I didn’t even know she was a runner and didn’t know much about that part of her life for the first couple of months we were dating. I was an athlete in high school, but I wasn’t into sports in college, mostly theatre and film. But with indy films, you want film that only you can make. When you have your creative partner who is also training for the Olympics and living in a place like TrackTown USA and has friends who are training and you have access to an amazing track and underwater treadmills, as a filmmaker, you’re like, ‘oh, yeah, this is awesome.’ So it really made sense for us to do this. The emotional core of the story is about a person who is growing up and really dedicated to pursuing this goal but she’s not sure if it’s really what makes her happy or not and she has to figure that out before it’s too late. As an indy filmmaker, I can relate to that because we’re pursuing a crazy goal at the sacrifice of a normal career and you question that sometimes. But now I always kind of smile when I find myself at a track race after how it has all happened.”

How concerned were you with maintaining an authentic portrayal of elite running in the film?

Pappas: “One of the best moments was that the first athlete who read the script was Nick Symmonds, and I was nervous. Prior to that we had shared the script with our advisors in a competitive lab program through the Sundance Film Festival, but we hadn’t shared it with any athletes. We had Nick read it because we were asking him to come onboard as actor. He said he could identify with the main character Plumb and her pursuit of the Olympic dream while trying to balance that and be a normal person. That’s when I knew we were on the right path because I knew we were making a good film that will be entertaining as an indy film but it will also speak to my peers in the running world.”

Was it challenging to maintain your training while also working on the film?

Pappas: “We worked around my training. We strategically had the principle photography timed during my month off of running. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to be a fully committed athlete if I was trying to direct and act and nor would I be a great director or actress if I was trying to train at the same time. It was a very thoughtfully planned production schedule. I was very intentional about making sure my running and my filmmaking stood on their own, individual platforms. I really chose to pursue professional running because I wanted to be a quality athlete on the world stage independent of anything else. And the same with filmmaking—I want to be a world-class filmmaker and want to keep doing that for years and years after I’m done running. What has wonderfully happened is that they’ve both blossomed into these really positive and successful things in my life that have positive feedback looped to each other. It’s so fun to come back from practice after having a great workout and feel really energized to work on the film. Or sometimes I’ll have a so-so day of running and be rejuvenated by working on the film. So there’s a sense of balance there and I feel like I’m healthier as a runner, mentally and physically, because of it. Our film advisors have been so supportive and excited about my running and my coach, Ian Dobson, and (TrackTown USA president) Vin Lananna and everyone in Eugene has been so interested and supportive of the film. You really feel like one aspect is excited by the other and that really elevates both.”

What were some of the other challenges of making the film?

Pappas: I think there are uncertainties almost every day in independent filmmaking. Every phase of the project had its own goals and things we needed to tackle every single day. In the writing phases, there are challenges that are more creative. But then bringing in collaborators, finding actors, getting funding are things that are thing that are both in your control but also out of your control. We are so grateful to have such an incredible team—from our local collaborators in Eugene to people like John Legere of T-Mobile, who’s one of our executive producers and biggest investors—and it was because of all of them we were able to bring our story to life. It didn’t unfold as I would imagined it would, but I think it unfolded in a better way because of all of the relationships and experiences we had were new. Jeremy and I really learned a lot by doing and we met a lot of people and grew quite a bit as creative people and as filmmakers.”