Big Ten Icons: Suzy Favor-Hamilton
“With the exception of the loss of some loved ones, I wouldn’t change a thing about my life—running got where I am today,” Favor-Hamilton said. “But winning titles seems so insignificant in comparison to the other gifts I’ve been given.” Motivation was never an issue for Suzy Favor. She enjoyed the buzz she felt and the adulation she received for “beating all the boys in school” in a quarter-mile race as a fifth-grader in Stevens Point, Wis. With her parents’ blessing, she joined the Stevens Point Area Running Club and began competing in AAU-sponsored age-group races throughout the Midwest. By the time she entered high school she was a serious, committed runner, talented enough to win the Wisconsin state cross country title as a freshman. The achievement was the starting point for a remarkable career, but it came with a price.
“After that I had the feeling I had to win every race,” Favor-Hamilton said. “I was never pushed. No one ever said, ‘Suzy, you have to win.’ My upbringing was fairly normal. And my coaches treated me like just another girl on the team.”
Favor-Hamilton’s drive came from within. If she had a hard time resisting the “you must win” imperative, it was because she was always winning. She had been diagnosed with a slight learning disability and was assigned special tutoring, which became part of her motivation.
“I wasn’t dumb, I just had a method of learning that was different,” Favor-Hamilton said. “But being singled out like that made me feel different.” Meanwhile, her older brother, Dan, suffered from a serious bipolar disorder that prompted erratic behavior and led to his eventual suicide at age 37 in 1999. Dan Favor’s struggles tore at Suzy’s heart.
“I dealt with at all by running,” she said. “If I wasn’t smart enough to be the perfect student, if I didn’t have the perfect home life, I’d try to be a perfect runner.”
At Wisconsin she came as close as humanly possible to fulfilling that goal. She chose Madison because her sister Kris was already there competing, “and it just felt right—I’m such a Midwest girl,” she said.
She also came under the tutelage of coach Peter Tegen, who was renowned for his work with middle-distance runners. “It was such a blessing to be able to work with him,” Favor-Hamilton said. “He taught me how to win races against other girls who might have been faster or more talented.”
She won those races in numbing succession. The indoor mile and outdoor 1,500 were her specialties at the NCAA level; she won each event three times in four years. She claimed the 800, 1,500 and 3,000 as personal possessions in Big Ten competition, winning each of them three years in a row from 1988-90. The workload was enormous for an athlete who stood 5-feet-4 and weighed 108 pounds, but Favor-Hamilton embraced it.
“I never felt overextended,” she said. “The training was much harder than the races. I never questioned any of it. I just did it.”
Favor-Hamilton continued competing at a high level after graduating from Wisconsin with a degree in graphic arts. She was one of two women to break the four-minute barrier for 1,500 meters (3:57.40) and made the U.S. Olympic team in 1992, 1996 and 2000. But her inability to finish the 1,500 meter final at Sydney in 2000, coupled with an incident following the birth of her daughter Kylie in 2005, served notice that her single-minded devotion to her sport was becoming harmful.
“I needed to run to feel good about myself, and after Kylie was born I just couldn’t do it,” she recalled. “I was supposed to be on the treadmill and my husband came home and found me on the floor crying. It wasn’t the first time. I actually thought about suicide, about what would happen if I drove my car off the road.”
Suzy Favor met Mark Hamilton during her freshman year at Wisconsin. He’d been a pitcher on the Badger baseball team and had dealt with his own transition to life after athletics: law school and a flourishing career in real estate. He insisted his wife get help with hers. She saw a psychologist the next day.
“I think the signs of depression and anxiety had been there when I was a kid, but I never confronted them,” Favor-Hamilton said. “I never dealt with anything. I just poured myself into running. When I could no longer run, I had to confront things head-on. I had to surrender the super-mom, super-woman image I had of myself and get help.”
During eight months of therapy, she dealt with it all: Her brother’s struggles, her fear that she wasn’t smart enough, her obsession with winning. She emerged a stronger, healthier, more self-aware person.
“It was incredibly difficult,” Favor-Hamilton said, “but also very freeing to realize I didn’t have to be perfect to have a wonderful life. That’s my message when I give speeches: The kind of life you want to live is your choice. Why not make it wonderful.”
Kylie Hamilton is now 4 years old, a recent pre-school graduate who is acquiring an awareness of her mother’s place in the world.
“I’m certainly not going to push her, into running or anything else, but whatever she wants to do, I’ll be 100 percent supportive,” Favor-Hamilton said. “If it is sports, at least I know the pitfalls.”
Who knows, maybe Kylie Hamilton will one day contend for the Suzy Favor Award.
“I could never imagine that happening, that a small-town girl from Wisconsin could have an award like that named in her honor. Words can’t describe what it means to me,” Suzy said. “Whoever wins will always be a great athlete. I hope it’s someone who also cares about the world and wants to make a difference.”