Prior to December 2012, Suzy Favor Hamilton, from what anyone could tell, was a former Olympian doing what former Olympians do and then … BAM! … there she is on TMZ being outed as a high end escort in Vegas. There was always something particularly charismatic about Suzy even beyond the beauty and the athletic gift, but no one in the running world saw that coming. A former Olympian with a husband and child leading a secret life as a Las Vegas escort? It certainly was unusual news, which meant everyone and her brother began to speculate, myself included.
As soon as the news broke, Suzy’s response was unusual: she did not do what we expected her to do, deny or hide from the truth. She didn’t come out and explain things, but did hint the truth would eventually come out and it might not be what people expect. Almost two years later, that story is finally out in her new book, Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness. While 20/20 and Dr. Phil can use the salacious parts of the story to bolster their ratings, I wanted to know more about Suzy the runner … and human being. I am so thankful she agreed to chat with me, and today I am very excited to share our interview with you.
1. Let’s start with where you are right now. What’s running like for you these days? Do you simply run for health and happiness or do think you’ll ever compete again? And is it hard to find the interest in competing after being an Olympian? It’s kind of hard to top that!
That’s an easy one. I run for fun. I’m not fast anymore. In fact, I’m flat out slow. My body won’t let me run fast as the mileage caught up to me years ago. I do wish I could run faster as that’s the type of running that really helps my mind the most, so I’ve found other activities I can do with the required intensity like cycling, barre, climbing, etc. And no, I have zero desire to compete again. I think from the book, you can tell that it was the competition part of running that I didn’t care for due to anxiety.
2. Speaking of the Olympics, one thing I was sad to read was that you generally didn’t enjoy your Olympic experiences. It was heartbreaking to read about your fall in 2000, that you felt so much pressure to achieve success for your family and to prove your naysayers wrong. If you could do it all over again knowing what you know and experiencing what you’ve experienced, would it be different and how would it be different?
Remember, we’re dealing with a not-so-healthy brain. The pressure I felt was self-imposed and I had things way, way out of whack. Zero perspective and I kept EVERYTHING in. I wish I had a voice back then and could tell coaches and others what I was feeling. I think simply letting it all go, getting some help, medication, etc. back then could have helped me immensely. We’ll never know.
3. Do you think you would have been so driven in your running career if you came from a more emotionally open family?
Perhaps. I’m so happy to finally have a voice these days and wish I had one growing up (and even well into adulthood). I was so obsessed with running and winning. If I could have expressed what I was feeling to family, perhaps a consistent discussion of priorities & perspective would have taken place. Drive is good, but mine was clearly an unhealthy one where pressures built and destructive behavior followed.
4. Similarly, in what ways (if any) do you think bipolar disorder affected your running career? Looking back at your time as an elite runner, can you point to any signs of your illness that appeared during that time? How might running tell someone that she might be suffering from bipolar disorder?
Well, I can’t pinpoint when bipolar took hold of me. It’s different for everyone afflicted. For me, it only became obvious to the extreme in my 40’s, but looking back, there was a suicide attempt in college, extreme anxiety during my running career, from high school on. Lack of perspective & rational thinking, lack of focus. Both my doctors and I believe that running helped manage my bipolar until late into adulthood. So I’m not sure how running could tell someone they might be suffering from bipolar. I do believe this…..Running is good for the brain every bit as much as it is good for the body.
5. If you discovered you had bipolar disorder during the height of your running career what would you have done about it? Would you have medicated even if the medication affected your ability to perform? Does your running impact your current course of treatment? Is there anything unique to competitive runners that they should consider when seeking treatment for bipolar disorder?
There’s a lot here. Of course I would have taken whatever medication a psychiatrist proscribed to me (although based on experience, when the meds make you feel like crap, lethargic, etc. you become tempted to stop taking them as I did in late 2010). A lot of things would have been treated differently. We would have done exactly what we did when we discovered I had bipolar. Medication, therapy, elimination or reduction of triggers, and creating an environment best suited for someone with bipolar.
[pullquote]I see the gift of running as a blessing.[/pullquote]I have no idea how all of that would have affected performance, but with the perspective I have today, who cares. I’m focused on much more than that. My hunch is that bipolar was responsible for my excessive drive, which in running, might not be a bad thing, but on the other hand, there’s a belief that it also was responsible for this lack of perspective and extreme anxiety. When you look at my career, my failures were rarely a result of physical failure, but instead a mental failure.
Today, running, and other forms of exercise, along with my art and my outdoor adventures serve as an important part of my therapy. I can’t see medication alone being an effective way of treating bipolar. There’s so much more to it than that. I will always believe that I was driven to running and embraced it so intensely because my brain needed it. I will be forever grateful to running because I believe it kept my bipolar at bay for years.
Anything unique? I could be wrong, but I believe many if not most competitive runners have to be a little “crazy” to do what they do. I have no idea if the competitive running population has a higher rate of bipolar disorder or other mental illness than the rest. What I do believe, and I have heard this so much from others who have shared their stories with me, is that many inflicted with mental illness clearly use intense running or other athletic activity to calm their minds. As I mentioned earlier, for this reason, I see the gift of running as a blessing.
6. I loved reading about your friendship with your Wisconsin teammate, Mary Hartzheim, especially from your perspective. But there seemed to be this dichotomy among elite women runners: the supportive friends and teammates like you and Mary in contrast with the intense win-at-all cost mentality that led to, on the petty side, cattiness, but in more extreme cases doping (Regina Jacobs) and self-destructive behavior like eating disorders and what happened to Kathy Ormsby. Even when you write about your time in the sex industry, you were competitive but managed to be supportive and friendly with other women. Do you think women can compete at elite levels in a healthy way? From your perspective is there a way to foster healthier competition among women runners?
Good question. I could be wrong, and this is going to be a very general statement, but I have always sensed the good male runners tend to do things “healthier” than the gals. Not to say that men don’t take PED’s, have eating disorders, OCD, “cattiness”. But it just seems like the guys tended to have more friendly competition, camaraderie, FUN. Just seemed that way & I was often envious. I don’t know how we change it for the better for women, but I do think a good women’s coach needs to be aware of the differences and coach accordingly.
Interestingly, I’ve been contacted by several female runners I competed with and against and they thanked me for writing the book and speaking out. In a nutshell, they said, they went through many of the same things I did as a runner but didn’t have the courage to speak about it.
Regarding cattiness, with my career being well over, I see some of the elite women get a little nasty with media comments on occasion and just want to say to them, “Ladies, it’s silly. You’re going to look back on all this someday and realize it’s just a foot race. Be thankful for the gift you’ve been given”.
7. There is a theme in your book about you being controlled by or seeking to please men in your life. This is not uncommon for competitive women athletes. Do you think you would have performed as well with a female coach? Would you ever consider coaching? Do you still feel the need to please?
I don’t know if control is the right word. I certainly was a pleaser. Bottom line for me is that throughout my life, I often did things more to please others than for my own benefit or free will. Not that anybody said I had to, mind you. Again, my perspective and more was way off throughout my life.
As far as coaches go, well regardless of whether the coach is a male or female, let’s face it, they must exercise a degree of control, and as the athlete, you do what you’re told, every day, every practice, every race. It’s just the way it works. I feel I would have performed fine with a female coach, but Peter was simply the coach I had so much respect for (and still do), that I would do anything he asked of me and then some. I do believe a female coach tends to be better equipped to deal with issues unique to women.
[pullquote]I do think a good women’s coach needs to be aware of the differences [from men] and coach accordingly.[/pullquote]I actually did help coach at Pepperdine back in the early 90’s. Loved it! Very low key program with a bunch of grateful athletes. I have been asked to assistant coach by a couple of college programs recently, so you never know.
My need to please is nowhere near where it once was. I still like to take care of others; I like to make others happy. I see all of that as good, but I don’t have this obsessive need to please where I once did. Medication, therapy, clarity. They all help in this regard. When you have a mental illness, this will sound selfish, but you really have to take care of yourself in a big way. Management is a full time job.
8. Reading your book, it was clear that you have thrived when you were achieving something and you struggled when you were not. You thrived as a successful athlete, while pregnant and as a new mother and then as a successful escort. You struggled when you weren’t the star of the show. Now you are again in the limelight promoting your book. So, what’s next for you? Can you be content not achieving or being out of the spotlight?
I have to say that I wouldn’t agree. I COULD NOT WAIT for my competitive running career to be over. As mentioned, I was competing not to let others down. When it was over, what a sense of relief and freedom I felt. No retirement press conference or anything. I just kind of vanished. 2005 was amazing with that freedom, my pregnancy and the birth of my child. I spent the next few years laying low, relatively speaking and just did a bit of public speaking, trying to raise awareness on mental illness, pressures, etc. It wasn’t the spotlight I missed at all. Now obviously, in 2011, everything changed when my mania really kicked in. At that point, yes, I wanted to be the star of the show, but I was in a very unhealthy place at the time.
If you think I am enjoying the limelight I am receiving these days, you would be mistaken. The writing of the book and resulting publicity tour has been a huge trigger for me. Lots of crying and sleepless nights behind the scenes. Many times, I have wondered whether writing the book has been worth it. Then I receive the many emails, letters, tweets and comments expressing that my story has helped somebody, inspired somebody to get help because they are not alone, maybe even saved a life. At that point I’m good.
So can I be content being out of the limelight? Of course. I know the book will come and go, publicity will stop, and I can go back to relative anonymity. I don’t’ want to go completely away as I feel I have a platform to make a difference, but certainly don’t want to be in any kind of long-term limelight. That’s a big reason why we moved to the West Coast. To get out of what was a little bit of a fishbowl for me in Madison, and to a place where nobody knows who I am. It’s healthier for me and I love it.
As far a being content not-“achieving,” that’s a different story. I always want to be good at what I’m doing, whether it’s a mom, wife, yoga instructor….whatever. That’s just how I tick. That won’t change and I want to set an example for my daughter to be an achiever as well as someone who can rise up from rock bottom.
9. You talked a bit about your critics during your professional running days, those who complained you were overhyped as an athlete because you were attractive. Now, you face new criticism of a different sort. The main thing I’ve heard people criticize you for is being narcissistic and self-absorbed. Were you over-hyped as an athlete? Are you a narcissist? What do you say to your critics?
Other than $%#& You?
Was I overhyped as an athlete? The book covers this quite a bit, but I think the answer depends upon time frame. As a high school and collegiate runner, I think I did pretty darn good, and deserved whatever “hype” I might have been receiving.
Now as to my first 6-7 years as a professional, clearly I was overhyped, but realistically, what am I going to say to a sponsor who wants to pay me or put me in a magazine ad? No thanks, I don’t deserve it? Track has enough issues with getting attention. We as athletes had to generate attention for ourselves to get noticed. The valid criticism is that my performance during that time did not match the attention and salary. Now, by 1997, I had been cut by Reebok and my other sponsors, was not getting nearly as much attention, and was hearing whispers at every turn. Messed with my mind, so much so that I returned to a place I never thought I would return to, Wisconsin and Peter Tegen. While my Sydney collapse is what I’ll be best known for, I am pretty proud of how I ran during 1997 – 2003. I don’t believe I was overhyped at that time. [pullquote]Mania is a difficult concept to grasp unless you have experienced it directly or indirectly.[/pullquote]
Am I a narcissist? Well, I don’t think your going to get a “yes” answer from too many people on that one, even Donald Trump. I think lots of professional athletes tend to have some narcissistic traits. Told how great they are on a daily basis. In my case, what I would say is that what you often hear about people inflicted with bipolar is that they are selfish, they are narcissists. Listen, you do what you need to do to make your brain feel good. In many instances, you try to get your brain from a depressed state to a manic state, and you don’t let much stand in your way, and remember, rational thinking is out the window.
So does becoming a top escort in Vegas appear selfish & narcissistic? Of course it does. Does it look like I craved admiration, put my interests above my family’s? Yes. Look, you can believe whatever you want to believe, but I know I’m no narcissist. When in my manic state, I have certainly exhibited narcissistic behaviors. But if you think that’s me in my healthier state, you don’t know me. What I have found from reaction is that if you understand mania & bipolar, and are affected by mental illness in some way, you get it. If you don’t understand and aren’t affected, you focus on the act and not the illness and you see me in a very negative light. Difficult nut to crack.
I suppose you can also be fooled by what’s going on presently. I didn’t have to write a book. I could have just gone away quietly. Well, here’s what I have to say about that. I wanted to be understood (and wanted my life back). I felt a book was the best way to do it, where you can tell what is undeniably a complicated story. I waited nearly 3 years to do it, once I was in a healthier state. I also felt the telling of my story could help people with mental illness, could help those who live or love someone with mental illness, and I felt this book might show someone without much knowledge what mental illness can look like.
I know we live in a cynical society where people will see that and disregard it. I must have done it for the money or the attention. All I can tell you is that you’re wrong. Mania is a difficult concept to grasp unless you have experienced it directly or indirectly.
10. Would you support your daughter if she wanted to pursue professional athletics, even running? What advice would you give her if she wanted to become a competitive athlete?
My husband and I have a very open dialogue with our just turned 10-year-old daughter. You go through something like our family has and I think it’s the only way to go. We encourage her to communicate with us as to how she is feeling about whatever sport she happens to be competing in. She swims, plays soccer, dances, and is just getting into Volleyball. She told us last night she wants to learn how to surf. She lets us know if she’s feeling pressure from her parents or a coach and we talk about it, always trying to find that balance of enjoyment of sport, working hard and doing the best you can do, with this societal pressure to win or else. We always want her to have a voice and not be afraid to use it. Couple years ago, she said she wasn’t enjoying gymnastics anymore. That was that, and good on her for telling us. I wouldn’t have done that as a kid.
If she wanted to pursue a professional career, we would simply warn her of the many pitfalls we have witnessed. Compete if you enjoy what you do, keep things in perspective, and stay away from any ideas of perfectionism. Sports are wonderful, but in this win-at-all-costs society where 8 and 9 year olds are already specializing in a single sport, with personal trainers and practice or games 5-6 days a week, it’s a little scary and makes you hesitate and want to protect your daughter from what could be a very damaging experience. Proceed with caution is the simple way to put it.
I want to thank Suzy for so graciously taking the time to answer my questions. I respect her greatly as an athlete, a spokesperson for those suffering with mental illness and as a person. No matter how honest or authentic she is there is always the danger that people will misunderstand or judge her; it’s clear it took a lot of guts for her to discuss her rock bottom so publicly! It is my hope that we have presented her here just as she is: clever (but not without honesty) strong (but not without vulnerability), and a mindful and grateful survivor.
Whether or not you are familiar with mental illness, Suzy’s story offers an insightful look into the way it can affect someone and the role running can play in keeping a mind healthy. And if you (or someone you love) have suffered from mental illness, hopefully this interview can help you see that you’re not alone, and there is a way forward.
After this interview what are your thoughts on Suzy’s story? What else would you like to know?