There is a scene in the movie Men In Black where the characters played by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones resort to the supermarket tabloids to find out what’s really, truly, actually happening in the world.
That feeling crossed my mind this morning when encountering a story posted by The Smoking Gun that 3-time Olympic distance runner Suzy Favor-Hamilton has been leading a double life as a Vegas escort.
The story also appeared on the cover of today’s Chicago Sports section of the Chicago Tribune. The article there, posted by respected Tribune Sports reporter and longtime track and field expert Philip Hersh, gets quickly to the point that Favor-Hamilton credits her battle with depression for the “decision” to engage in her double life.
Her husband Mark was apparently aware of the life his wife was leading. That intimates a complexity to the situation that you or I may never know about, nor should.
How it happens
There could be a dozen other factors contributing to such a stunning revelation that the highly attractive, well-to-do and well respected athlete had engaged in such risky behavior.
There was naivety at play. She reportedly did not think her clients would ever make mention of her actual identity when she shared that information with them. She was known in her trade by the name “Kelly” and was regarded as one of the top “providers” at the company where she worked. Suzy Favor-Hamilton was apparently an achiever even in her second life.
Her athletic career had been filled with triumphs, marred only by an apparently purposeful fall at the 2000 Olympics when she realized she could not medal. She had been running to honor the memory of her brother who had committed suicide the previous year. At the thought of failing, she took the fall rather than complete the race. The reasons for those actions might seem like a flaw of character, but in reality they reflect a multitude of issues with which more than a few athletes must cope.
The fine line of Olympic success
Athletically, it might have been that Suzy Favor-Hamilton simply didn’t have that “top gear” that differentiates world class from Olympic champion. She can hardly be faulted for that, nor can any of the other thousands of athletes who have tried to win Olympic medals, and came up just short. Many of the world’s all-time great distance runners including Ron Clarke never earned that medal. Things have to be perfect on that day, and perfect in preparation and even basic talent to make it possible to swing by the pack in that last 100 meters and sprint to Olympic glory.
The Dave Wottle story
One also has to be lucky. And a little tricky sometimes. And calm. Cool. Have a great race strategy. And trust yourself. Don’t let your image or ranking or anything else control your thoughts. Consider the amazing come-from-behind 800 meter Olympic race of 1972 competitor Dave Wottle. (Youtube video of race). The man with the slow start and the determined kick comes from behind to win against supposedly superior competitors.
Wottle was an unprepossessing type. You can see that immediately after winning the Olympic 800 meter gold medal (see video) he was not demonstrative or flashy. He simply made the rounds with his ugly little golf cap perched on his head, shaking hands with his competitors. No carrying the flag around the track. No prancing and posing and acting like he knew he would win the race all along. In fact Wottle never really made much of his image at that moment or earned big commercial endorsements the way Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner would go on to do. Wottle went on to coach at a Division III school.
Parlaying sex for success
Compare that with the life and times of Suzy Favor-Hamilton, who while talented and accomplished in track and field also had to wrestle with the fact that she was beautiful. Her profiles in running magazines often centered on her beauty, and she courted that attribute by issuing her own swimsuit calendar. Later, following her Olympic running career, she parlayed her image into a successful career in real estate, motivational speaking and doing appearances related to the Disney Marathon series.
Treatment and coping
Suzy Favor-Hamilton admits she made what she called a “big mistake” embarking on her second life. The Tribune notes that she is now seeking help from a psychologist. Her previous treatments had included taking Zoloft, an anti-depression medicine that has helped her cope with an affliction first recognized during post-partum depression. She has stated, “I realize I have made highly irrational choices and I take full responsibility for them.”
Going back into her career, she notes that she fell on purpose during the 2000 Olympic final because of a panic attack brought on by those self-imposed higher expectations of competing for her brother’s memory.
The costs of scandal
Like the scandalized world class cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose career has been caught up in scandal over alleged doping during his 7-year reign as Tour de France champion, revelations about Favor-Hamilton’s second life has cost her some sponsorships. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series has ended its relationship with Hamilton.
Others have been more forgiving, on paper at least. A Wisconsin agricultural group for whom Suzy Favor-Hamilton has done promotional work stated, “We regret having learned about this today. We hope she finds some stability in her life. We will be evaluating our relationship with her.”
Long term struggles with mental health
The Chicago Tribune story notes that “Throughout her running career, Hamilton battled a series of psychological issues. In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last summer, she talked about dealing with anxiety, self doubt, eating disorders and eventually, postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter, not 7.”
It appears that Suzy Favor-Hamilton was sending out signals all along that she wanted and needed help with her anxiety and depression. The fact that she acted out a dangerous fantasy that was essentially an exaggeration of her already sexualized image is simply an expression of the fact that she did not get the help she was seeking. Not from traditional sources, anyway. Where there’s smoke, they say, there is sometimes fire.
Hope for the future
Perhaps this accomplished athlete can emerge from her emotional challenges with the same strength and purpose that has marked the new career of fellow distance athlete Alberto Salazar, who also battled depression and other physical ailments that shortened his running career. Salazar has now become one of the world’s leading distance coaches, and one of his proteges, Galen Rupp, raced to a silver medal in this year’s London Olympics.
Anxiety and depression affects more than a few runners, who may even turn to the sport in some respects for its ability to help them cope with an anxious or high-wired personality, or the opposite, a depressive inner persona that needs forcible release.
It turns out that so-called endorphins can be our friend or our enemy. In the case of runner Suzy Favor-Hamilton, it has turned out to be both. May she find truth from her experience, and may others show sympathy for her struggles.