CBC Sports book review: ‘Bravey’ by Alexi Pappas

Bravey

Alexi Pappas

Hardcover | $27.00
Published by The Dial Press
336 Pages | ISBN 9781984801128

Alexi Pappas, Olympic distance runner and filmmaker, lived through a terrifying early childhood. 

Her memoir, Bravey, gets to the trauma, pronto. As a kindergartner, Pappas wanders into her parents’ bedroom, and sees her mother looking into the vanity mirror in the ensuite, where she is literally sawing her own arm off. The phrase ‘bloody pot roast’ is used. This true horror is rendered even more visceral by the mum catching Alexi’s eye in the mirror and deadpanning “Don’t tell your dad.” Her mum survives that day, but not an ongoing torment of mental illness. She commits suicide while Alexi is still four.

When I was little other people believed that I lacked some­thing because of my mother’s death. I can never know for sure exactly what I missed out on. But what I do know is that her death forced me to seek out female mentorship on my own terms, and the mother-shaped hole in my heart has now been filled by wonderful women of my choosing.

Bravey is dedicated to her loving father, but it is the mysterious behaviour of other kids’ mothers that captures her attention. She is touchingly grateful for a glimpse of a neighborhood mum’s naked body in a swimming pool changing room.

As books about running go, this is an ultramarathon away from Christopher McDougall’s bestselling  “Born To Run”.  Pappas was a poetry and improv student before she was a professional runner, and this is clearly, delightfully, aimed at a readership of self-questioning, younger, women athletes, in that order. Pappas shares satisfying morsels from her adolescent peaks and valleys, early life lessons, mean girls, food and drink bingeing, sexual awakening, shoe shopping, malls and movies. She is particularly good at observations of body image. But as she details all this ‘normal’ Berkeley coming of age material … with a wiry body and unusually long limbs, I managed to become one of the top young runners in California. I finished fourth in state my sophomore year.

And that is part of the curiosity of this book. The truly unique life she leads as a Greek American woman, representing Greece in the 10,000-metre event at the Rio Olympics, gets more or less equal attention as does her thinking about kissing, clothes, school and the usual teen stuff. I am pretty sure Pappas is being intentionally artful here. She downplays the exceptional in her life and elevates the normal. She practises what she preaches-  regular people can do incredible things. They just have to work very very very hard.

When she does focus on running, she makes a strong case for rethinking the training loads that girls are given during puberty. Coaches pushed her developing body too hard, and so she stepped away from running for a couple of critical years.

… what none of them knew is that rather than being a death sentence, puberty is a superpower. The body that I grew during my junior and senior years of high school was capable, durable, and powerful because I wasn’t fighting against my body’s natural inclinations. I grew C-cup boobs. I rode the puberty wave and then, when the time was right, I gradually increased my training. My mature body was far more durable and powerful and capable than the twisted Peter Pan pre-pubes­cent body that most female athletes feel pressured to maintain.

When Pappas makes it to the Rio Olympics, she’s wide-eyed inside the athletes village. She casts herself as wallflower, traipsing around alone, guessing competitor’s sports based on their body shapes. Within that cloistered camp she sees detail seldom shared by other athletes.

“…the Olympic Village doctor and dentist offices were packed at all hours of the day because this was the first doctor’s appointment many athletes and coaches from less-developed parts of the world had had in four years (since the last Olympics). The Olympics means different things to different people.”

Pappas suffers a serious depression. A series of post-Olympic setbacks converge and she tumbles down a terrible pit of despair and mental illness. She lives in terror that, like her mum, she will be beyond help. But in time, she meets the right Cognitive Behavioural Therapist for her needs, and trusts the mantra “First your actions change, then your thoughts, then finally your feel­ings, in that specific order.” It works for her.

The movie-making side of Pappas’ career holds her attention in the latter chapters, even as she transitions to Marathon running. She drops names incessantly, SNL cast members in particular. What would otherwise be irritating suits her “I’m just a hard working regular person” message. She is emphatically starstruck. Pappas describes actors as suns around who she orbits.

Bravey is a memoir about persisting through pain, with running, filmmaking, relationship, and mental health stories in the mix. As a grey-bearded runner, I’m okay with this book. If I were a high school girl, I’d recommend it to all my friends.

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