Her image could hardly have been better: Athletic. A knockout. All-American. So accomplished and so wholesome that Disneyland hired her for speaking engagements, the Big Ten college athletic conference named an award after her and the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association made her their pitchwoman.
Yet something troubled Suzy Favor Hamilton. The former track star out of Wisconsin, whose speed and talent took her to seven national championships and three Olympics, ultimately dealt with her demons by stealing away to live a life as a highly paid prostitute.
An “escape,” she called it, that was really a way of masking an American Dream coming unhinged — a real-life tragedy that undercut the myth that success, wealth and fame is a surefire path to happiness.
“I do not expect people to understand,” Favor Hamilton said in a frenzied burst of tweets after details about her secret life became public on Thursday in a report on The Smoking Gun Web site. “But the reasons for doing this made sense to me at the time and were very much related to depression.”
Stanley Teitelbaum, a psychologist who wrote the book Athletes Who Indulge Their Dark Side, said it is not so difficult to understand. After retiring, and spending most of her life trying to live up to a certain ideal and getting her highs from the adrenaline rush of elite, competitive sports, day-to-day life in the normal world can seem boring.
“You’ve got to think of an emotional outlet, maybe in her case, a nonconventional outlet, a way of getting high by somehow being a bad girl in contrast to her image of an upstanding, Olympic athlete,” Teitelbaum said.
In an interview earlier this year with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Favor Hamilton said she dealt with anxiety, an eating disorder and struggled with postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter, Kylie, now 7. However, she told the newspaper, “I feel better than I’ve ever felt.”
At the time of the interview, it turned out, she was doubling as “Kelly Lundy,” a US$600-an-hour call girl for an escort service based in Las Vegas.
Apparently, it was not for the money. In the Journal Sentinel profile, Favor Hamilton said she gave upward of 60 motivational speeches each year and ran a successful realty firm, in addition to doing appearances for Disney and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series. The Smoking Gun reported that a check through public records showed she lived in a US$600,000 house in the Madison suburb of Shorewood Hills and that neither she nor her husband, Mark Hamilton, had any outward signs of financial difficulties.
On Friday, there was no answer at the front door of her house — a sizeable, split-level home at the end of a cul de sac where a hurdle emblazoned with the word “Wisconsin” sat, snow covered, alongside the driveway.
A neighbor, Bob Lynch, said he used to see Favor Hamilton, her husband and daughter walking around the neighborhood and “they looked like a solid, little family.”
“She’s really successful,” Lynch said. “Madison’s a small town that way. If you were a sports hero at the university, you could do well in business.”
In the wake of the news, Disney canceled an upcoming appearance by Favor Hamilton, the Orange County Register reported. The Big Ten conference, which hands out the Suzy Favor Athlete of the Year Award to honor an athlete who won 23 conference and nine National Collegiate Athletic Association titles, had no comment on Friday. A spokesman for the University of Wisconsin athletic department also declined comment.
A walk around the campus in Madison paints a compelling picture of the revered status she still holds at Wisconsin.
Inside the Kohl Center, where the Wisconsin basketball team plays, Favor Hamilton is remembered on a long wall near the entrance commemorating “great moments in athletics history.”
In another area, where the trophy awarded to her as the 1989-1990 Collegiate Woman of the Year is on display, a plaque beneath it reads, “There’s only one Suzy.” Favor Hamilton is also singled out on the university’s Web site describing the displays, describing her as “incomparable.”
However, when Favor Hamilton was in school, according to two people who knew her then, she was generally regarded as shy and unassuming. Despite that, she had ways of grabbing attention that now have an odd resonance. She was sporadically injured and unable to practice on the track, so to get her cardio work in, she would swim laps in the pool while the men’s team was practicing. While one-piece suits were the norm for women training in an athletic environment, Favor Hamilton would peel off into a head-turning, two-piece bikini.
It was not the last time Favor Hamilton would garner attention for her looks during a career that spanned three Olympics.
She had modeling contracts and did a photo shoot for the Suzy Favor Hamilton 1997 calendar, which labels her as a “Three-time Olympian ... and more.”
In 2000, she starred in a Nike commercial that is a send-up of horror movies. Dressed in a sports bra and running shorts, Favor Hamilton is stalked through the woods by a chainsaw-wielding zombie, but escapes by simply outrunning him. Message: “Why sport? You’ll live longer.”
The commercial ran the same year as her last appearance at the Olympics.
She ran at those games to honor her brother, Dan, who committed suicide in 1999. In the 1500m final, Favor Hamilton was leading the race with 200m to go. However, with runners starting to pass her, she told the Journal Sentinel she intentionally fell, ashamed she couldn’t win a medal to honor her brother.
“Coming around that corner the anxiety gripped me so bad,” she said. “It told my brain, ‘Just fall. That’s the easiest solution. Just fall, and this all will go away.’ That was the only way out.”’
In an interview with The Smoking Gun about her double life, Favor Hamilton said that as a world-class runner she started to believe she was invincible and brought up Tiger Woods, saying, “I mean, he’s the biggest athlete ever. He obviously thought he could never get caught.”
Though Woods and Favor Hamilton experienced far different levels of success and fame, Teitelbaum said their experiences are not so far removed.
“There’s the sense of entitlement, grandiosity, the idea you can do whatever you want without worrying about consequences,” he said. “She needed to have some way to express some other side of herself that didn’t feel as clean or wonderful or upstanding as she appeared to be.”
While living the secret life, though, Favor Hamilton could not fight the temptation to tell some of her clients who she really was. She believes one of those clients eventually “outed” her — and now her alias is no longer a secret.
“Doing something like that adds to the sense of the drama,” Teitelbaum said. “And there’s always a self-destructive component. Whether it’s based on shame or guilt, it seems like, ultimately, these people find a way to self-destruct.”