It's been a long journey for Alexi Pappas, a trek that has taken her from the East Bay to New Hampshire, with stopovers in Hollywood and New York City.
But Pappas, a 2008 Bishop O'Dowd High graduate who grew up in Alameda, is taking another trip this week -- to the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore.
Pappas finished third in the women's 3,000 meter steeplechase for Dartmouth on June 8 in the NCAA Division I championship meet, and easily passed the Olympic Trials provisional time earlier in the season, which should allow her to be in the preliminaries at Eugene. Qualifying is on June 25, and the final will be held on June 29.
"For me, it feels sort of like icing on the cake," said Pappas, 22. "I will take it as seriously as any other race. The prelims, I will treat like finals." Just one year ago, Pappas could not picture herself even qualifying for the NCAA finals in the steeplechase. She decided to try the event one day in 2011 when coach Mark Coogan was training another athlete in the event.
"I really wanted to try it. It looked more interesting than running in circles. It looked like an adventure," Pappas said.
Her first race in the event, she went out too fast.
"I went out at 5-flat (per mile) pace. It was really stupid," Pappas said. "I think I ran 11:23."
The next race, she broke the school record. She lowered her time to 10 minutes, 25.82 seconds later that season. But she didn't see herself
"I just wanted to make the regional championships at that point. That seemed like a really big deal to me," said Pappas, who achieved that.
Over that summer, she lived in New York City with friends and performed improv in Washington Square Park (Pappas has been part of an improvisational comedy group at Dartmouth since her freshman year). She also trained with another Californian, Sarah Cummings, in New York and increased her mileage to 70 per week.
The training paid dividends in the fall, as Pappas finished as the No. 2 runner for the Big Green in the NCAA Northeast Cross Country Regional. The year before, she was not one of the team's top five runners in that race.
"(Coogan) really trains us to believe in ourselves and embrace the pain. Running is really mental," Pappas said.
Her success continued into this year.
She was a member of the distance medley relay team that took third in the NCAA Indoor Championship. Over her spring break, she was helped with her hurdling in the East Bay by Dublin High track and cross country coach Chris Williams. At Dartmouth, she was training with Abbey D'Agostino, who ended up winning this year's NCAA Outdoor 5,000 title.
"You could see that she was improving last year. She came out of the block this year and set a PR in her first race," Coogan said.
On April 6, she broke her own school record in the steeplechase with a time (10:07.58) that also eclipsed the Olympic Trials provisional time of 10:15. She improved her time to 9:58.41 on April 19, then to 9:55.89 at the NCAA East Regional. The Olympic Trials Automatic Standard is 9:55.00.
The field size will be 24 for the steeplechase at the Olympic Trials. At press time on June 18, Pappas had the 24th-fastest qualifying time in the nation.
In the NCAA Outdoor championships, Pappas was fourth in her preliminary heat (10:00.38) before earning All-American honors with her third-place finish in the final (10:01.20).
"In the finals, I got back into the mindset that I belong here. It's going to be hard, but I belong here," Pappas said. "I tried to be aggressive but stay up and move with the pack. For the most part, I moved up like I should have."
"She's an athletic woman," said Coogan about Pappas' success in the event. "I think you have to be a different athlete to be a steeplechaser. You are not just running in circles."
When Pappas first arrived at Dartmouth, it didn't appear that she would be one of the best distance runners at her school, let alone the nation.
"I didn't really run on a team my last couple years at O'Dowd. I played a lot of soccer. I was fit for a soccer player, but I wasn't in good distance running shape," said Pappas, who credits her father John for helping her deal with challenges during her life. "I could not complete a workout. I cried after my first workout.
"I knew in my mind I wanted to work at it and work hard, but it wasn't going to happen overnight."
Pappas ran low-key meets. She took off the winter quarter of her sophomore year and got an undergraduate research grant to study improvisation in Hollywood. It was in Southern California that she started training with a team called The Janes Elite Women's Running Team.
"They helped me appreciate the sport. There was a positive energy," Pappas said. "I was taking it all in and loving it. That was a turning point for me. My training was up to me, and I worked hard."
Now that she has graduated magna cum laude with high honors in English, Pappas will stay in Eugene starting this fall to do graduate studies in film making and challenge herself again athletically.
"It's like the Disneyland of running," she said. "I think I'm ready to try something new."
If this new challenge ends up anything like her try at the steeplechase, there will be more Pappas athletic highlights in the future.