What comes after swimming? What comes after an intense sports life?
‘Afterlife’ is a short documentary directed by Ryan Rundle, it follows the Bulgarian-born Olympic swimmer Mihail Alexandrov, as he struggles to reconcile the inevitability of retirement while training for a seat on the US Team in in Tokyo.
We had a chat with Ryan, discovering something more about this wonderful visual journey between water, dreams, fatigue and reality.
Why did you choose to tell this fascinating story?
Afterlife began as a documentary about an aging athlete’s journey to the Olympics. What it became was something else entirely. I met Mike (Mihail Alexandrov) through my cinematographer, Alex Pollini. Mike was a two-time Olympic swimmer from Bulgaria who had spent the majority of his professional career competing for a seat on the U.S. Team, and at 32-years-old, it seemed the Olympics in Tokyo would be his last shot.
I acknowledged that the odds of making the team were not stacked in his favor, but I also knew how it felt to be an underdog – to be counted out – and maybe we saw that in each other. So Alex and I started documenting his training regiment. The things he did to support himself, like coaching. Even the quite hours spent alone in his apartment, eating kale salads and watching ESPN while waiting for one day to end and another to begin.
I wanted to paint as accurate a portrait of this person as I could, and the closer I looked, the more dimensions I saw. It became clear to me that this was not just some hyper-driven athlete dead set on winning a gold medal, but a remarkably sensitive and self-aware human being who had devoted his entire life to the pursuit of one singular, all consuming feeling – the feeling of winning – for yourself.
I spoke at length with Mike about his struggle with retirement, but always indirectly, as if it were a source of immense anxiety looming on the horizon. It was a constant internal battle that he had been struggling with for years and finally, midway through principal photography, he announced his retirement from competitive swimming.
I remember reading the article and feeling at a loss. Where do you go from here? Do you place the hard drives full of raw footage in a drawer along with your passion for the project and take what you can away from the experience? That was difficult for me to accept. But I guess that’s the beauty of documentary filmmaking. The narrative is constantly changing course right in front of your eyes and you either ride the current or you try and swim against it. If you allow the current to take you where it wants to take you, however, you can end up somewhere you might not have otherwise known existed.
That place, for me, was the mental and emotional fallout of a professional athlete losing their sense of purpose in life. And I suppose, in that sense, the story chooses you.
What struck you most about the relationship between Mihail and water?
When I commit to a project, my first instinct is usually to gather some first hand insight into its subject matter so that I can approach it from a place of empathy. In this case, it was professional swimming. I wanted to know what made it difficult for an athlete to step away from it.
So I began swimming on a daily basis, first in the ocean and then with Mike in the USC pool. It wasn’t long before I developed an appreciation for the joy of weightlessness and the burden of gravity. I realized that Mike had spent two hours a day, nearly every day, since the age of four, either in or around a pool, and that over the course of thirty years, that feeling had become a relief, a source of comfort and consistency in an otherwise inconsistent world.
One morning, Mike was lying at the bottom of the pool. He had extinguished most of the air from his lungs, swam 13 feet to the bottom and was (somehow) blowing translucent rings of air to the surface for what felt like an eternity. Well into post production, I projected my own fear and anxiety onto that moment. I imagined that the pressure must have been intense.
That his lungs were on the verge of involuntarily gasping for air. Something buried in my psyche had instilled me with the fear of drowning – of breathing water. But to Mike, this was his safe place. Like a baby in utero, the only thing he feared was losing his sense of security.
From Bulgaria to an American record. How many sacrifices did Mihail have to face in order to build his career?
Mike came from humble beginnings in Bulgaria, where it wasn’t unheard of to prioritize training on holidays. This was a kid who grew up with a subscription to USA Swimming and idolized athletes like Tom Dolan, Erik Namesnik, not to mention his own father and Olympian, Plamen Alexandrov. I think Mike’s greatest fear was being given an opportunity to succeed and failing to do so. In his words, “Training was my privilege, not my sacrifice.”
Mihail says that strength doesn’t matter in the last five meters of the race. How relevant is the mind in a sport like swimming?
While I think a great deal of mental preparation is required in order for an athlete to tap their potential, there’s also a level of performance that seems to transcend both mental and physical preparation – a state of “no mind” or “flow” in which you’re no longer thinking, you’re just doing.
In 2007, Mike broke the American Record in the 100-meter breaststroke. I always enjoyed talking with him about that race because it immediately brought him back to the feeling of breaking that record.
But in recalling the experience of swimming that race, he actually remembered very little: pushing off the wall for the homestretch, seeing no one in his periphery, acknowledging that something was happening in that moment that he still can’t quite put into words.
But for the most part, he was just gone…and when he came back, he was looking at a new American Record and yelling at the top of his lungs. He had left it all in the pool and that, to me, is the magic of sport – the gray area between where mental preparation begins and physical ability ends.
Retirement is a leap for an athlete, a new situation between contentment and disorientation. A moment that, if I’m not mistaken, you have decided to metaphorically portray with the open waters. Is that right?
Retirement is just as much the end of one chapter as it is the beginning of another. But the amount of time and dedication required to compete at a professional level leaves many athletes feeling like a ship at sea.
Mike and other athletes like him have experienced a major life event that most of us won’t fully understand or appreciate until we’re well into our fifties or sixties. It’s a recognition of one’s own mortality and a reevaluation of your purpose. But it’s also universal in nature – something each of us, one day, will be forced to reconcile. And I think in Mike’s case, the most appropriate metaphor for that event was open water.
Now what will be Mihail’s “Afterlife”?
Mike has a very special gift and it’s not just his athletic prowess. By devoting his life to his craft, Mike has gained a deep understanding of what sport truly is and why it’s important. Something that I believe will make him a remarkable coach one day. And it is this: the joy of competing is not found in a time or a medal.
The joy of competing is in the doing. It’s the feeling of winning – for yourself. I hope he passes that on, because I know there’s someone, somewhere who could really benefit from hearing it.
Afterlife is currently streaming on docsnowplus.com as part of Academy Award qualifying American Documentary and Animation Film Festival through Oct. 4th, The Newport Beach Film Festival through Oct. 11th and will stream online at Academy Award qualifying Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival Oct. 9th – 17th.
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