How did Suzy Favor Hamilton go from running in the Olympics to working as an escort in Las Vegas? The answers lie in a troubled family past, the competitiveness of an elite athlete and an undiagnosed mental illness.
This excerpt originally appeared in the Sept. 14, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here. It was excerpted from Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness by Suzy Favor Hamilton with Sarah Tomlinson. Copyright © 2015 by Suzy Favor Hamilton. To be published on Sept. 14 by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
I was shaking, still riding the rush.
The appointment I’d just left was one of the fanciest hotel suites in Las Vegas. My body was still glowing with pleasure. This is way better than winning a race, I thought. This is better than competing in the Olympics. If I’d known how amazing this felt, I never would have wasted all that time.
My old life with my parents and husband and daughter still waited for me in Wisconsin, but I went home less and less. I was Kelly now, one of the most sought-after escorts in Vegas. Suzy, the former professional athlete, the Realtor, the wife, the mom—she had disappeared.
I flashed back to the luxurious penthouse suite where I’d spent the past two hours. It had been my first appointment with this handsome client, but I’d walked in and given him a kiss straightaway, letting my mouth linger on his. I wanted him to imagine I’d been aching to see him all day. I’d taken him to the bed, showing him that I was the one in charge. He’d liked it. Ceding control turned him on, in contrast to his daily life as the CEO of a major corporation.
I had earned $1,200 doing something I loved. I thought of my next appointment, later that night. By then I’d be buzzing even more, telegraphing that I was the kind of wild girl who could make his dreams come true.
Now that I’d devoted myself to sex, my need to be unsurpassed in the bedroom had replaced the need to be best on the track. But this was even better, because I’d hated the competition necessary to win a race. Everything about being an escort was enjoyable. I didn’t want to go back to my old life. Not ever.
As a child, I had a very active imagination, which made it nearly impossible for me to concentrate on reading or school. I had to be moving. If I was still, anxiety and self-doubt crept into my head.
My family—my parents, older brother, two older sisters and I—lived near a small ski hill in Stevens Point, Wis. My brother, Dan, raced competitively. He loved the speed and the adrenaline rush, and he chased the thrill of dangerous activities. The older he got, the more erratic his behavior became.
When Dan’s high school girlfriend died of a rare condition, Reye’s syndrome, he was devastated. His mood swings and aggressive behavior worsened. He was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given shock treatment and lithium. After the treatment he self-medicated with liquor. One day when I was 12 and he was 18, my mom and I found him passed out, clutching an empty vodka bottle. Another time my dad found Dan, drunk, pointing a shotgun at his head.
No one in my family talked about these anguishing scenes, and a shadow crept over our house. To me, ours was a family of secret pain. I wanted to make up for it. I decided to be perfect.
When I discovered running, I loved that it was so pure, just my body and me. By the time I joined my middle school track squad, in seventh grade, I was so much faster than the other girls that our coach had me run with the boys’ team. But I was already faster than most of the boys, too. I didn’t like being singled out like that, and track practice became anxiety-inducing. I wanted to win, but I hated not being able to blend in.
The accolades that came with track made my parents proud. I saw that I could distract them from their stress and fears about Dan. But that made me feel more pressure to win. My freshman year at Stevens Point Area Senior High, I won the mile and two-mile races at the statewide meet. I was miserable. I thought, Now I have to win every state meet. If I were to lose, I’d let everyone down.
Feeling out of control, I found one thing over which I did have power: what I ate. Or how little I ate. Between the minuscule amount of food I was eating and the excessive training, my body was starving itself. But I was running faster. Still, with all my training, starving myself wasn’t sustainable, so I became bulimic. I would binge on a tray of brownies or a bunch of pasta and then purge.
The bulimia was full blown by the time I started college, at Wisconsin, in 1986. No matter how skinny I was, I always felt heavy, especially because I didn’t have what I thought of as the perfect running body. I did everything to hide my large breasts, ordering a team shirt that was too large and altering it to hang even more loosely on me. My shame turned to rage later in my college career when I learned that a coach of the men’s track team had shown his runners video of my breasts bouncing as I ran. In 1993, I would secretly pay $8,000 for breast-reduction surgery.
In January of my freshman year a friend fixed me up with one of his baseball teammates, a freshman pitcher from California, Mark Hamilton. He looked like Val Kilmer in Top Gun, with that same flattop. I thought he was gorgeous.
Mark was open-minded and wanted to talk about everything. Although he never asked me about my bulimia, he gently urged me to eat when we were together, and he noticed when I’d skip a meal. Eventually I opened up to him. With his support I stopped purging and adopted a more balanced diet.
On the track, meanwhile, I worked with Peter Tegen, the greatest coach I would ever have. He knew it was important for his runners to compete against international athletes early to have a shot at the Olympics. He persuaded the university to pay for the team to travel to Europe and race in the summers. There I saw I could hold my own against the world’s best runners. Back in college I won every national track championship I entered—nine in all, at the time the most NCAA titles for any athlete.
In January of my senior year I signed a six-figure, five-year contract with Reebok. A week after Mark and I graduated, we got married. We moved from Madison to Malibu. Mark would attend Pepperdine’s law school while I trained for the 1992 Olympics.
In the 1,500-meter final at the U.S. trials I edged my childhood idol, Mary Decker Slaney, to finish third and qualify for Barcelona. My parents were overjoyed. Signs went up all over my hometown, cheering me on to the Olympics. The expectations turned my euphoria into the greatest anxiety of my racing life.
By the night before my 1,500 preliminary in Barcelona, I was back in the dark, negative head space that often plagued me during competition. Not only that, but the Olympic Village was a chaos of loud music, drunken shouts and laughter. I lay in bed seeing myself fail again and again. I don’t think I slept at all. I would rather have done anything but run an Olympic race.
I could barely focus as I took my position. And then I started to run. I didn’t feel like I belonged among these elite athletes. I tightened up with a lap and a half to go, living the nightmare of many runners: I felt as if I were dragging my arms and legs through quicksand. The other racers flew past. I finished last.
At the 1996 Games, Suzy ran the 800 meters and failed to make the final. She and Mark moved back to Madison, and she continued to run professionally. Then, in ‘99, Dan Favor died by suicide.
The shadow of Dan fell over an already high-stakes year for me. I was 32 in 2000, and it would be my third Olympics. I felt as if I had to finally make good on all the sacrifices that Mark, my parents and my coaches had made for so many years.
I came in second in the 1,500 meters at the U.S. trials. I was running great—too great. I peaked in Oslo just after the trials, running the 1,500 in 3:57, a couple of tenths of a second off Slaney’s U.S. record. That established me as the favorite in Sydney. But in the Olympic semifinals I ran second and felt terrible, as if I were already spent. Before the final I wanted to flee.
I was assigned to be the first runner, closest to the inside rail. This meant I had to get off to a fast start to avoid getting boxed in. My heart felt as if it would pound itself to dust. When the gun went off, my newly sharpened spikes gripped the track. Running in sheer panic, I pushed my way into [the lead], but with every stride my only thought was, I just want this nightmare to be over.
With one lap to go the exhalations of the runners behind me grew louder, making me feel as if I were being hunted like an animal. My legs grew heavy, and with 150 meters left the other runners passed me one by one. I was going to come in last, in my last Olympic race. No gold for Mark, for Coach Tegen, for my parents, for my brother’s memory. Heartbroken, I told myself to fall, and then I fell.
I felt like an idiot, but at least I didn’t have to run anymore. Then I realized I couldn’t leave this race unfinished. I made myself get up and cross the line, but when the media crowded around me, I couldn’t bear the shame and collapsed again. I closed my eyes and felt the medics lift me into the air.
Suzy and Mark had a daughter, Kylie, in 2005 and began working together in real estate. Suzy suffered from postpartum depression and often felt consumed by anxiety, which placed stress on her marriage.
By March 2007, I was barely holding it together. As soon as Mark left for the office in the morning, I fell apart. I rocked back and forth, unable to stop. It’s all too much, I thought. I have this child. I have this job. I hate real estate. I don’t get along with my husband. I want it all to end.
Driving home from an appointment with a client one night, I gripped the steering wheel and prepared to drive off the road and into a tree. I was just at the point of no return, pressing the gas pedal hard, when I thought, What if it doesn’t work? I can’t be in a hospital bed for the rest of my life. Kylie’s face kept rising from the chaos in my mind, reminding me that I had something important to live for. I was wrung out by the time I parked in front of the house. I was in a fog that whole night. Mark asked, “What is with you, Suzy?”
“Well, I almost killed myself tonight,” I said.
Mark immediately softened. He hugged me. “I want you to call the doctor,” he said. “And if you don’t, I’m calling for you.”
After Suzy went on antidepressants, she and Mark decided to take a trip to celebrate their 20th anniversary.
I said to Mark, “Let’s go to Vegas.” I’d come up with what I considered a wild anniversary celebration. “First, I think we should go skydiving,” I said. “And then”—I paused for drama—”I was thinking, maybe we could hire an escort and have a threesome like we’ve always talked about.”
Mark knew I’d always felt some attraction to women, although I’d been only with him. “Yeah ... O.K.,” he said, grinning.
I was beside myself with excitement as we pulled up at the airfield. We were doing a tandem jump, which meant we’d each have an instructor strapped to our backs. In the plane we reached our jumping altitude, and in a flash I was falling through the air. Inside, though, I was soaring. It was the most powerful rush possible. I could see all the way to Lake Mead, 30 miles away. It was spectacular. I whooped with joy.
I was giddy with endorphins from skydiving when we got back to our hotel room just after six o’clock. At exactly 7 p.m. there was a knock on our door. Our escort, Pearl, strolled in looking happy and relaxed, as if she’d known us forever. She was beautiful; there was a golden glow about her. She sat down close to me on the couch. “Is this your first time in Vegas?” she asked, flirtatiously indicating there was more to that question.
“We love Vegas,” I said. “We’ve been here a few times now.”
“And what’s the occasion for this trip?” she asked.
“It’s our 20th wedding anniversary,” Mark said.
“No,” she teased. “You don’t look old enough.”
My nerves evaporated. I really liked this woman. She looked at me with real warmth. And then, still holding my gaze, she slowly stood up. “Shall we?” she asked.
As Pearl moved things along in the bedroom, she seemed sweet and classy, and I felt myself connecting with her. I also felt closer to Mark than I had in a long time.
Suzy returned to Vegas alone several times with the reluctant acquiescence of Mark, who urged her to be discreet.
The Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon asked me to take part in its events in Las Vegas on Dec. 3 and 4, 2011. They flew Mark out as well. I arranged to meet with Bridget, our contact at the high-end escort screening service that had set up our threesome. Pearl had flipped a switch inside me, awakening a certainty that I could please clients even more than she’d pleased me. I told Mark that because the service did a background check on all its clients, becoming an escort was the best way to ensure that no one ever found out about my double life. And I said I had to do this if I was going to be happy. Somehow he agreed.
I wanted to have occasional trysts, with just a couple of Bridget’s highest-rolling, most discreet clients. When she asked me why, I said, “Well, I was a professional runner for many years. It could be very damaging to my reputation if anyone found out I was sleeping with a man who wasn’t my husband.”
The next day, a few hours before I was due to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon’s first Stiletto Dash, my throwaway phone buzzed. “Can you make an appointment in an hour?” Bridget said.
The next thing I knew I was in our hotel room, scrambling to get ready. “Mark, you have to take me to [the client’s hotel],” I said. “I don’t know where it is.” He looked up at me for a long moment, sighed and then explained how to get there. I thanked him and gave him a kiss goodbye. I left my husband of more than 20 years and went to have sex with a stranger for money.
I was Kelly now. This was the name I had chosen, but it was more than that. Kelly was my new personality: a confident, powerful woman who made her own decisions.
My client on my next trip to Vegas was a good-looking, very wealthy Midwestern corn farmer, Bob, who was in his mid-60s. He had silver-gray hair and a confident, seductive air. “Have you ever been to Denver?” he asked me over drinks.
“Oh, sure,” I said. “I’ve been all over the West and Midwest. I went to the University of Wisconsin.”
I was too new at escorting to know that the men coveted information about the girls they saw. And I hadn’t yet learned to be careful with my words. I wanted to feel my clients and I were friends; that connection was a huge part of the turn-on. Later that night, without thinking, I referred to myself as Suzy. I hoped he had not caught it.
“I want to see you again,” Bob said. I loved the fact that I already had regulars, and I was excited to see Bob on another visit to Vegas. When I walked into his suite, though, he dropped a bombshell. “I know who you are,” he said. “You’re Suzy Favor Hamilton when you’re home in Wisconsin.”
Mark had warned me that this would happen, but I wasn’t worried. “I’ll never tell anybody,” Bob said. “Now let’s go get you some new lingerie.”
Having men spend money on me was a thrill. From a young age I’d been told I was destined for greatness, and I had chased that dream on the track. Now, as Kelly, I was looking to be No. 1 again. I became obsessed with the rankings that clients gave escorts on the website Erotic Review. I thought of regulars from whom I could receive 10s, and I went the extra mile for new clients so they would write me positive reviews.
Fortunately I had a wonderful husband at home covering for me. He got Kylie up and off to school, devoted himself to our business during a nonstop workday, took Kylie to her after-school activities and made sure she was fed and bathed and tucked into bed.
Later, when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was given a list of common symptoms. None resonated more than this one: increased sex drive. Not only that, but a tendency toward risky sexual behavior with potentially dire consequences.
I had started expanding the range of things I was willing to do with clients, but when pushing the sex boundary lost its thrill, I occasionally told them who I was. I loved seeing how excited they got when they learned I was a famous Olympian. I didn’t think it was risky. We had a special bond. None of them would betray me. I was sure of it.
In December 2012 the website The Smoking Gun ran a story providing evidence that Kelly was Suzy Favor Hamilton. The next month Suzy was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
It is a crisp fall morning. I’ve dropped Kylie off at school. I look forward to this time, when I can move in the way my body knows best, wind in my hair, finding the rhythm that feels as natural as breathing. I am constantly in motion: running, on my bike, on my yoga mat. At those times I am myself, living the life I want, not the one that others expect from me or the one that I created out of fantasy. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a life of contentment, and for this I am incredibly grateful.
I am grateful for the little moments, such as walking my daughter to school, sharing a family meal, dancing to our favorite songs while we bake chocolate chip cookies. I am grateful that the love of my life stood by me through the destruction that was my illness. The year that followed my diagnosis was actually the most challenging of all. It took months to find the right dosage of Lamictal, the drug that finally quieted my mind. With the help of a skilled mental health team, I identified the triggers that set me off: my job, my family, certain aspects of my marriage. We cleaned up the wreckage I had created and paid the taxes I owed for my escorting.
As I run, I feel my muscles loosen. It was running that made me a role model, even though I had little desire for that burden. I came to hate the thing I loved most. But now I have a new purpose. I want to share my story. I want to have the courage to keep fighting. I want to show others, especially my daughter, that you have to live for yourself, and that with love and help you can claw your way back from a dark place.