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Suzy Supreme
With the Olympic Games looming, UW star Suzy Favor Hamilton has ambitious new goals

By Chuck Nowlen
Published July, 1992
Copyright 1992, Madison Magazine

 

As a girl, Suzy Favor Hamilton loved to frolic with her brothers and sisters in the lush nature trails near the Plover River in Stevens Point. The limbs and branches that fell along the trails were perfect for building the small forts that fed the kids’ nature fantasies. For Suzy, the youngest, the best part was the gathering.

“I’d be looking for branches, and pretty soon I’d be galloping through the trails picking things up,” she recalls, a little red-faced. “I remember that it felt so easy, running like that for hours. I actually pretended that I was a horse.”

Hamilton, of course, never stopped running; and she eventually rewrote the NCAA middle-distance record books during her four years at the University of Wisconsin.

In the process, she also became the darling of the local media – and with good reason. A smooth, hard-working demon on the race track, she was the girl next door once she crossed the finish line. No matter how exhausted she was after a tough win, she would good-naturedly sign autographs and pose for one-on-one pictures with young admirers. In post-meet interviews, she talked of the team’s success, not her own, and she always mentioned the individual triumphs of her teammates.

And when she married her college sweetheart two years ago and moved to Malibu, California, where she is an assistant coach at Pepperdine University, everyone knew her star was just beginning to rise.

Wholesome, pretty, humble and smart, Suzy Favor Hamilton is almost too good to be true in today’s sports world, and she now finds herself in the rarefied air of international competition at age 23.

She is considered a lock to make the US Olympic team, and, barring a catastrophe at the late-June trials, she’ll be among the favorites to win a medal in Barcelona later this month.

And, if Suzy Favor Hamilton’s life was a whirlwind at Wisconsin, it’s now a full-blown typhoon. Her training schedule is now even more intense; she has attracted a flood of time-consuming endorsement contracts with Reebok, Clairol, Kikkoman and other major corporations; and she’s constantly approached for interviews by big-time media.

Some track insiders worry that the break-neck pace of Hamilton’s life might cost her the gold medal she’s hoped for since she was a teenager. But those who know her well insist that no matter what happens in Barcelona, Suzy Favor Hamilton is destined for success.

Her secret, they say, is simple: In track and in life, she keeps her eyes focused directly in front of her and her feet churning methodically on the ground.

“She’s very, very down to earth, just a wonderful person,” says Billy McDonald, a veteran state track aficionado who has known Hamilton since she was in seventh grade. “She’s a tremendously focused person who will stay focused on her marriage and whatever else she does just like she focuses on track. I’m sure she and her husband will accomplish whatever they want to do.”

Adds Mary Hartzheim, a former UW teammate and Hamilton’s best friend: “She’ll always be the Suzy she is now – a really sweet person who doesn’t go through life being sweet. If anybody can handle all the attention, it’s Suzy. Her life is very solid. I think part of it is because she has enough aspects to her life other than running.”

Hamilton, an avid photographer, mountain biker, baseball card collector (she’s most proud of her Darryl Strawberry rookie card) and “healthy food” chef, would like to be a TV sports commentator someday. In the meantime, she says, her life is pretty normal – or at least as normal as it can be for one of the best and most sought-after middle-distance runners in the world.

The gut-check workouts, the photo shoots, the travel, the interviews: She thinks of them all as part of a job, and once this job has run its course, she’ll move on to something else – raising a family, perhaps, and pursuing “a more permanent career.”

“It’s funny how people assume that I’m just a runner,” Hamilton says. “When I’m not off running, I’m doing what normal people do – taking care of my husband, cleaning the house, cooking, playing with my puppy (a chocolate lab named Otis). I’m no better than anyone else. Everybody’s got a special talent. Mine just happens to be one that people want to write about.

*

It is 11:30 on a sunny, late-April morning in Madison, and a long line of reporters and others is scheduled to intersect with Hamilton during the day. She has just conferred for an hour with representatives of Walworth-based Kikkoman Foods and the local advertising company that handles her Wisconsin promotions. The subject: details of a new ad campaign that will portray Hamilton as “Wisconsin’s Favor” and Kikkoman soy sauce as “Wisconsin’s Flavor” in state newspapers and magazines beginning in July.

A lengthy photo shoot for the campaign is set for later in the afternoon at the UW track. A Wisconsin State Journal reporter will tag along, and a food-oriented feature story will appear the next day.

During the past 24 hours, Hamilton has promoted Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Wisconsin’s Walk America fitness program in Milwaukee; she has visited friends and family in Stevens Point; she has practiced with the UW women’s track team; and she has chatted for a while with Hartzheim and other Madison friends.

After today’s interviews and the photo shoot, she will run for an hour around the UW Arboretum, and, if there is time, she will run in the water of the Natatorium pool. (“It looks silly,” she once told Cosmopolitan magazine. “But it strengthens my legs.”) After that, she might swim a few laps, too, “just to relax.”

At this point, her training is geared to a pre-Olympic-trials track meet in Kentucky two days after her Madison stop, where she will win the women’s 1,500-meter race with a time of 4 minutes, 32 seconds (a long 15 seconds or so off the world record).

Two days after arriving back home in Malibu, she will take off for Dallas for a Rolling Stone magazine photo shoot. She has also done interviews for Vogue, American Health, the Los Angeles Times, Elle and many others.

Dressed in a casual, off-white outfit and accompanied by former UW Regent Milton Neshek, a Kikkoman executive, Hamilton is bright-eyed, cordial and eager to talk about soy sauce – Kikkoman Lite, to be exact.

She and her husband cook together and use it often, she says, especially on her favorite meal, chicken tacos with lettuce and cheese. Such low-fat, low-salt fare is typical in Malibu, she adds, where most of the people she meets eat healthy, work out often and don’t drink or smoke.

She is quick to point out that while she lives in one of the nation’s most exclusive spots, the many friends she has made there are anything but movie-star types.

“There are millions of them out there,” she says. “But our neighbors are mostly just normal people like us.”

Despite her commitment to a healthy diet and a trim physique, Hamilton is worried about women, especially athletes, who take it too far. She recalls the year she was a strict vegetarian and ended up anemic to the point where she felt cold nearly 24 hours a day. She notes that some women literally starve themselves to death in pursuit of the “perfect body.”

“There is a lot of pressure on women to be thin, but I think the most important thing is to be happy with yourself and who you are,” Hamilton says. “I have a friend who is trying to lose weight, and for me it’s easy. I tell her to exercise and reduce your diet. But that’s not always easy for a person to do. You have to know when to draw the line.”

During the interview, Hamilton mentions her husband Mark often, and it is clear that their lives are tightly joined in spite of all the time they have to spend apart. A former UW baseball player whom she met on a blind date at a pizza parlor early in her freshman year, Mark is now a second-year law student at Pepperdine. The law library overlooks the track where she works out, and when she practices, she will sometimes glance up and see him watching her. They will smile and wave, and then get back to work. Mark, who plans to be a sports agent after he graduates from law school, handles all of her contracts.

“A lot of agents don’t have a law background,” she explains. “Athletes need the right kind of guidance, and a lot of people aren’t getting that. They’re getting taken advantage of instead.”

When I ask Hamilton who influenced her life the most, she names her husband without hesitation. A gifted pitcher, his college career was plagued by injuries, and he never made it to the big time in sports. Hamilton particularly admires Mark’s work ethic and the methodical way he pursued other goals.

“It’s neat to be around someone so positive,” she says. “The two of us have our whole life planned out. We want to retire in Hawaii someday.”

And in the meantime?

“We just want to do as well as we can.”

Hamilton also mentions her family, a tight-knit unit in which each member is considered special, but equal to the others. Her father works for Sentry Insurance as a graphic artist, a field in which brother Dan, 30, has followed. Her mother and sisters, 28-year-old Carrie and 25-year-old Kristine (who also was a standout runner at UW) are nurses.

Suzy seems to have inherited qualities from both parents. Her college major was art, for example. Her favorite photographer is Ansell Adams, known for his majestic nature studies. Her favorite painter is Jackson Pollock, whose free-spirited abstracts shook the art world in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“Growing up with a bunch of nurses also makes you a very caring person,” she adds with a smile.

At one point during the interview, I ask her to list a few of her weaknesses. She thinks for a moment, then jokes: “You should ask my husband about that. He could tell you a lot of them.” She thinks a bit more and adds:

“I’m not always perfect, that’s for sure. Nobody is. I do the bills at home, and I suppose there are months when I screw them up or mess up something else.” Another short pause. “I guess everybody has a temper, too. Once in a while, Mark and I disagree, but that’s something we work on in our marriage. We realize that disagreements are going to happen. We work through them and try to resolve them.”

According to Neshek, who cut a deal with the Hamiltons on the day of their wedding rehearsal dinner, Suzy has precious few weaknesses as a product spokesperson. Naturally outgoing and accustomed to the camera, she’s perfect for the fast-growing market of health-conscious women. Reebok, by far her biggest sponsor, signed her shortly she graduated from college. She is featured in two of the company’s TV commercials – striding through Death Valley in one and speaking the words, “Whoever said winning isn’t everything never won anything,” in another. For some reason, her voice in the latter commercial was dubbed to the face of an actor.

At the end of the interview, I ask her if there is anything I haven’t brought up that she would like to talk about.

“No, I guess that’s about it,” she answers with a glance at Neshek. “Just be sure to mention Kikkoman Lite. It tastes great, and it really is goo for you.”

I then tell her that I plan to contact her parents and several of her friends. She volunteers to call some of them beforehand to let them know it’s okay with her.

“If you want any telephone numbers, I can give them to you,” she offers. “I have them in my head.”

*

When I call Hamilton’s parents, Conrad and Rachel Favor, in Stevens Point, Mrs. Favor answers and then politely excuses herself to stir the spaghetti that’s cooking on the stove. When she returns, she apologizes for the delay and later turns the spaghetti off so there will be no more interruptions. Mr. Favor is in the other room, listening intently to how his wife handles yet another interview about their famous daughter.

From the beginning, Mrs. Favor frames her answers about Suzy in the context of the other children in the family, and she makes a point of spelling their names to be sure I get them right. Suzy, she says, is a “vivacious, determined, structured and goal-oriented person who enjoys her family and who has always been athletic – just like her brother and sisters.”

“From the time she was little, she always wanted to do what her older brother and sisters wanted to do,” Favor says. “They all rode their bikes, and she learned how to ride a unicycle with them. (She notes proudly that ‘all of our children ride unicycles.’) She’s also been interested in art since before pre-school.”

“But I wouldn’t say that Suzy was special from the word go,” Mrs. Favor says. “She was just a normal, happy child who liked her brother and sisters. It wouldn’t be fair to the others to say Suzy was special. I don’t think she feels special, either. She was just part of the family.”

Mrs. Favor gives much of the credit to the UW-Stevens Point Geselle Institute for helping to develop the athletic skills of Suzy and the other Favor kids. The institute, which served as a combination day-care center and motor-development pre-school for the Favor clan, pairs university child development students with children from the Stevens Point community. Suzy, who enrolled in Geselle when she was three-and-a-half, excelled in all of the institute’s activities – trampoline, parallel bars, ladder climbing and swimming.

“My husband is a very strong swimmer, and he wanted all the children to be strong swimmers, too, since we live so close to the Plover River,” Mrs. Favor adds.

Suzy showed a strong aptitude for running in grade school, where she won all-city track meet titles in the 200- and 400-meter races. But she didn’t start taking the sport seriously until middle school, running with sister Kris for the Stevens Point Running Club.

By the time she was 12, Suzy and her sister had both qualified for the national junior championships in Nebraska, and Mr. Favor drove them there himself. Running against youngsters a year older, Suzy placed third in the 800 meters. After later winning a state title in high school, she caught the eye of most of the country’s top college track coaches, including Peter Tegen at UW. He first saw her at a summer running camp at the university.

“I remember just being amazed by this young girl who demonstrated such a beautiful, natural stride with no apparent mechanical inefficiencies,” Tegen says. “I had been in this profession for a long time, but I had never seen anyone quite like that.”

Cindy Bremser, a former UW great who finished fourth in the 1,500 meters at the 1984 Olympic Games, recalls the young Suzy Favor this way:

“I knew she was running very good times in high school without really being tapped as an athlete. But when I saw her, she made it look so easy. She’s blessed with a lot of natural talent, and I thought to myself, ‘If she gets the right coach to work with her, she can really go places.’”

After one phone call, Tegen all but gave up on recruiting Hamilton when she told him that she preferred a warm-weather school. Months later, though, after Suzy and her parents came to grips with the travel that would be involved in attending schools in California, Florida, Missouri or Oregon, Hamilton committed to UW-Madison, where Kris was already enrolled.

“I was absolutely certain she would be successful. We talked from the beginning in terms of the Olympics,” Tegen says. “In fact, I was at first a little concerned about having to deal with such a talented young woman. My concern was, ‘Uh-oh, now you really have to show what you can do as a coach, because with a talent like this, there can be no excuses.’”

As it turned out, no excuses were necessary. Suzy became Wisconsin’s youngest national champion at age 18 in the indoor mile; she went on to win nine NCAA individual titles and 23 Big Ten crowns, going undefeated in championship races; she earned 14 All-American honors, the most by any UW athlete; and she was an unprecedented three-time winner of the Jesse Owens Big Ten Athlete of the Year award. That award was renamed the Suzy Favor Big Ten Athlete of the Year in 1991.

These are honors that do no come easily, regardless of an athlete’s natural talent. What the public does not see, according to Tegen and others, are the hours of hard work and the inner toughness that made Suzy Favor Hamilton a bona fide star.

“Running is one of the most difficult sports. It’s very draining, mentally as well as physically,” notes Mary Hartzheim. “When you’re getting fatigued, you have to convince yourself that you can keep going and hit one more level. With Suzy, something goes off inside of her when it’s close. You can see it in her eyes. She just goes like crazy.”

Jack Kammer, a member of the UW cross country team in the ‘40s and Hamilton’s dentist for the past several years, remembers one especially close race in which Hamilton was challenged late by an opponent known for her rough-and-tumble tactics:

“They were elbowing each other, and the girl was pulling on Suzy’s shirt. I had to laugh, because the girl she was running against really thought she was tough. But Suzy didn’t give an inch. Toughness – it’s something that’s built into people. Some people just hate to lose, and that’s Suzy. That’s Suzy all over.”

*

Will Suzy Favor win the gold medal in Barcelona this month? Tegen is certain that she’s capable, but he worries that she might not have fully honed her skills during the two years since he worked regularly with her. He notes that at Pepperdine, she works out with the men’s and women’s teams and gets some guidance from her fellow coaches. But that’s much different from constantly being under the watchful eye of a single, very talented mentor.

“You need repeated, high-quality, timed efforts,” he explains. “I’m glad that she has the help she has, but as far as I’m concerned – and I know her well – we change over time. We make mistakes that we didn’t think we could make. My concern is that I can’t say, ‘stop, stop, stop’ during a workout and show her how to adjust.”

Says Bremser: “Since she’s been out in California, it’s hard to know how she’s training, although it’s really important to have someone giving you feedback. International competition is definitely tougher. Everybody in the race is good; you have to worry about all 10 girls you’re racing against. Anything can happen in any given race.”

Hamilton says she learned a valuable lesson at the last Olympic trials, when she failed to make the team, mainly because she over-trained.

“My attitude was awful,” she remembers. “I was tired. I didn’t want to be there, and I shouldn’t have been there. But the whole experience was good for me. It made me grow up a lot.”

It also reinforced in her the notions that a good athlete has to roll with both the ups and the downs of competition. Failing well, she says, is equally as important as winning well, especially when it comes to the larger game of life.

“No matter what happens,” she says, “you have to just push on and on.”

Or, as she put it at the world indoor championships a year ago after a gutsy back-stretch charge helped her beat Romania’s Doina Melinte, the world record holder in the 1,500: “I try not to get stressed out, just to have fun. The other girls here were so nervous before the race. I said to them, ‘Just have fun. This is a lot different than college. You have to get used to it.”

And with an attitude like that, how can she lose?

 

 

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