I met Suzy Favor back in the early 1990s when she was finishing her college running career at the University of Wisconsin.
I was writing a book called From Red Ink to Roses: The Turbulent Transformation of a Big Ten Program, about UW’s nearly bankrupt athletic department and the way it got itself into profitability and won the Rose Bowl in the process.
Favor and I had an appointment to meet at the baseball diamond on a lovely spring afternoon, and as I waited, I saw a distant figure grow from a speck to a human being. And there she was before me. Rather than drive or ride a bike or hitch a ride, Favor had simply run the mile or so across campus because it was so easy.
She came so we could chat, but also because her boyfriend, Mark Hamilton, was a UW baseball player, and his sport was soon to be cut in the athletic department’s vicious road to profitability.
‘‘I’m glad I’m in a sport where all you need is a pair of shoes and someplace to run,’’ she said as one of the final baseball games unrolled before us.
Wow. What a couple of decades it has been for Favor. She married Hamilton two weeks later, graduated from Wisconsin, won numerous national championships in middle-distance events, ran in three Olympics and then, in the last year, at age 44, became a high-class hooker.
Yes, it sounds crazy, but once outed by The Smoking Gun website, Favor Hamilton admitted she had started working for a Las Vegas service that sent her to different cities where she earned $600 an hour from clients or $6,000 for an entire day of performing the ‘‘full girlfriend experience.’’
The odd thing? She wasn’t doing it for money. She often was traveling to the cities to give motivational speeches, and then she’d do the sex thing on the side. She and Hamilton live in an expensive house outside Madison and do not appear to be in any financial straits. It had to do — she sort of explained — with her depression, need for adventure, fantasy fulfillment and . . . well, she says she hopes to find out more from ongoing psychological therapy.
Back when I met her, Favor stood 5-3 and weighed 105 pounds. She was pretty and courteous, but there was a glint of ferocity in her eyes, of suppressed danger.
I saw the look in many of the Wisconsin middle-distance and long-distance female runners. In my book, I made special note of them, of their lapses into near insanity, of their successes and crashes and eating disorders and dependence on their controlling German head coach, Peter Tegen.
Some of those UW girls looked like they weighed less than 100 pounds, with sunken eyes and arms as gaunt as coat hangers, eating white lettuce and diet soft drinks for days on end. For them, Favor was sort of a golden girl, but in many ways I saw her as no different from the obsessed and barely rooted others.
‘‘I realize I have made highly irrational choices and I take full responsibility for them,’’ Favor Hamilton said on her Twitter account about her escort work. ‘‘I am not a victim here and knew what I was doing.’’
She added, ‘‘I do not expect people to understand.’’
And, indeed, it is difficult. As I wrote in my book, Her visibility as an attractive world-class athlete has recently garnered her a slew of endorsement contracts. Though she does not graduate for a week and is still technically an amateur, she has deals with Reebok, Blue Cross Blue Shield, a Honda dealership, a poster company and Wisconsin Manufactured Housing, makers of prefab moveable homes.
‘‘The head of that company told me they received 2,700 calls because of the commercial, which ran for just about a month,’’ she says proudly.
Her life seemed all joy, but it wasn’t. I remember seeing her at the Olympics in Sydney 2000, watching her fall in the 1,500 meters — for no apparent reason — and she later would say she fell on purpose, because she couldn’t win. What do you do later in life, when winning at anything becomes even more difficult?
How crazy were the UW runners? One told me how, because of anorexia and bulimia, she had not had her period in nine years. One ran until her bones started breaking. Stephanie Herbst, a national champion, won an NCAA 10,000-meter title race in Bloomington, Ind., in which another obsessed young woman, a dean’s-list pre-med student from North Carolina State who had set a U.S. collegiate record six weeks earlier, ran off the track in mid-race, climbed a seven-foot fence, sprinted down a city road and then flung herself off a 35-foot high bridge. The runner survived but was paralyzed for life.
The thing is, Herbst didn’t even notice. Or much care. Indeed, as she told reporters later, the attempted suicide was ‘‘a typical situation’’ and ‘‘not really so unusual.’’ Herbst, who stood 5-7, weighed 95 pounds. The girl who tried to kill herself wasn’t much different: 5-8, 108 pounds.
This is not to say all female distance runners have eating disorders or other serious issues. But many members of that Wisconsin team did. And maybe it has taken them a lifetime to work things out.
As Tegen said of Favor in 1993, with a grin, ‘‘She has a fierce will to win that is not sweet at all.’’