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Ultimate Trailblazer

HIES Alumna

From competitive Frisbee to her pursuit of a Ph.D., Christine Georgakakos ’11 welcomes all challenges in life and on the Appalachian Trail.

Two thousand one hundred eighty-nine miles. ... It takes long enough to type that distance. Imagine what it would take to hike it. And with a heavy pack strapped to your back the entire way—from Springer Mountain, Ga. to Baxter Peak-Katahdin, Maine. 

The legendary Appalachian Trail. Two thousand one hundred eighty-nine miles.

Through wind, storms, oppressive heat, bugs of every variety, injuries, setbacks, nights darker than dark, literally stuck in the middle of nowhere. Often with zero cell service to call for help, or even to call home. No Google to help you determine the difference between poison ivy and Virginia creeper, or how best to build a campfire with rain-soaked wood. 

Two thousand one hundred eighty-nine miles.

For mere mortals, such an invitation would be met with a, “Thanks, but no thanks.” 

But for Christine Georgakakos ’11, she thought it sounded like a brilliant way to spend her summers between graduate-school semesters and Ultimate Frisbee competitions, a sport in which she excels. 

Ms. Georgakakos has never been one to shy away from a challenge, a reputation she earned during her days at HIES, as far back as her time spent on the Middle School Science Olympiad Team. Ms. Janet Silvera, eighth-grade Accelerated Physical Science teacher, said that she could see the spark in her ambitious student’s eyes long ago.

“Christine joined the team when she was in the sixth grade, and my husband, Max, was the ‘building coach,’” Ms. Silvera said. “Throughout Middle School the two of them built, tested, broke and rebuilt balsa-wood bridges and towers that could hold a 33-pound weight, or more. We still have some in the eighth-grade lab.”

Ms. Silvera went on to say that her former star Science Olympian possessed “an amazing blend of brilliance, strength and determination along with a caring and compassion for all living things and our environment.” 

These are qualities that no doubt served Ms. Georgakakos well during the two consecutive summers that she and her boyfriend, Dan Zandam, spent starting and finishing the Appalachian Trail, a journey that was one of the most challenging and wonderful experiences of her life.

“We both dreamed about doing it for so long, and we finally made up our minds to take on the A.T.,” Ms. Georgakakos said. “We were so excited and got off to a great start. But about two weeks into it, we were both asking ourselves, ‘What in the world have we gotten into?’ Everything hurt. Our ankles, backs, feet. We were thinking: ‘If this is how bad it hurts now, how are we ever going to finish?’ And, that was a question that we just never let ourselves answer. We couldn’t.” 

But the question was eventually answered late in the summer of 2016 when the two “thru-hikers” topped out on Mt. Katahdin in Maine, successfully completing the journey that began the previous summer in Georgia when Ms. Georgakakos had earned her master’s degree in biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University.

She completed her hike of a lifetime just in time to begin a new challenge, again at Cornell — her pursuit of a Ph.D. in biological and environmental engineering. 

And while her academic, personal and professional endeavors may sometimes get the better of her, they certainly will not keep her from reaching the summits that she has mapped out. She will always be able to draw strength from her experience of finishing the bold and audacious journey of two thousand one hundred eighty-nine miles.

“Having reached the end of the trail, finishing something so difficult that I started, just gives me a confidence that I can take anything on, as long as I have set my mind to it.”