Suzy Favor Hamilton was a top American middle-distance runner from the early 1990s to 2000, a three-time Olympian after becoming a nine-time NCAA champion at Wisconsin. She was so accomplished that the Big Ten Conference named the award given to its female athlete of the year in her honour.
So it came as a shock on Thursday when Favor Hamilton, 44, told the website The Smoking Gun that for the past year, her life as a real estate agent, mother and motivational speaker had also included work as a $600-an-hour prostitute for an escort service in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities. She called the behaviour "a huge mistake."
The disclosure, while startling, followed admissions by Favor Hamilton in recent years that her stellar running career and her personal life had sometimes been troubled. Since retiring, Favor Hamilton has said she felt enormous pressure as an athlete, not only to win but to be perfect.
And she has said that she struggled with family tragedy, self-doubt and an eating disorder while trying to succeed in a sport that gains significant attention once every four years during the Summer Olympics, where winners are celebrated, usually briefly, and where losers are quickly forgotten after putting enormous effort into one moment.
At the 2000 Sydney Games, Favor Hamilton later said, she fell on purpose in the homestretch of the 1,500 meters when she realized she could not win the gold medal. She told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last summer that she had developed postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter, now 7, and was taking Zoloft, an antidepressant. Still, she seemed upbeat in the interview, saying, "I feel better than I've ever felt."
On Thursday, though, Favor Hamilton made one more personal revelation about a secret life. In postings on Twitter, Favor Hamilton wrote that she began "escorting" because it provided "coping mechanisms" and "escape" from a life in which she continued to feel depressed and struggled with her marriage.
"I realize I have made highly irrational choices and I take full responsibility for them," Favor Hamilton wrote. "I am not a victim here and knew what I was doing."
She added: "I do not expect people to understand, but the reasons for doing this made sense to me at the time and were very much related to depression. As crazy as I know it seems, I never thought I would be exposed, therefore never hurting anybody.
"I have been seeking the help of a psychologist for the past few weeks and will continue to do so after I have put things together. I cannot emphasize enough how sorry I am to anyone I have hurt as a result of my actions and greatly appreciate the support from family and those closest to me. I fully intend to make amends and get back to being a good mother, wife, daughter, and friend."
During her career, Favor Hamilton posted five of the nine fastest 1,500-meter times by an American woman. But her girl-next-door glamour was complicated by a troubling aspect of competition. In the interview with the Journal Sentinel in July, Favor Hamilton described herself as a "pleaser and perfectionist" who struggled with the pressure to win and with "demons in your brain telling you you're not good enough, you're not fast enough, you need to be better."
After finishing second at a national high school cross-country championship in the mid-1980s, Favor Hamilton told the newspaper, she developed an eating disorder, apparently believing that she could run faster if she was lighter. Eating problems persisted into her freshman year at Wisconsin. Eventually, she had a spectacular college career, then competed in three Olympics but never challenged for a medal, seemingly ill-equipped to run events that required multiple rounds.
At the 1992 Barcelona Games, Favor Hamilton did not advance beyond the first heat of the 1,500 meters. She was also eliminated in the first round of the 800 at the 1996 Atlanta Games, a result that was devastating for someone who felt a need for perfection.
"Your whole life, you're told how great you are, from your coaches to your friends to your parents' friends," Favor Hamilton said in the July interview. "I had to be the perfect child, in my mind. It wasn't anybody's fault. I never blamed anybody. It's just the way society is."
The 2000 Sydney Games gave Favor Hamilton one final chance to win an Olympic medal and escape a reputation that she was not reliable in major international competitions. Entering the Olympics, she had the fastest 1,500-meter time in the world that year. She led the final with 150 meters remaining. She was running in honour of her brother, Dan Favor, who had committed suicide a year earlier. But she began to struggle to breathe and her legs grew heavy. Other runners passed her. Then Favor Hamilton fell to the track after the final turn without colliding with another runner.
Years later, after therapy, she admitted she had fallen on purpose after realizing she could not win.
"I wanted that gold so bad," Favor Hamilton told the Journal Sentinel. "I thought that was the only way to true happiness in my life. It was unbelievable how I let my brain get so out of perspective."
In recent years, she began to speak openly about her career during motivational speeches. She told the Milwaukee paper that she ran now simply for fun and fitness and that she hoped her struggles would encourage other troubled athletes to speak up.
"I just know I'm happier than I've ever been," Favor Hamilton said. "My life just keeps getting better."
It can be problematic for athletes in sports like track and field to transition into daily life after devoting their careers to a rarely held event like the Olympics, which often provides only a glimmer of attention and no prolonged financial safety net, said Jordan D. Metzl, a sports physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
"It can be a difficult psychological proposition to put an entire life's focus into one week and then drift into obscurity," Metzl, who has treated Olympic athletes but not Favor Hamilton, said in a telephone interview Thursday. "That's a lot of pressure."
Last December, using the alias Kelly Lundy, Favor Hamilton began working for an escort service, she said. She told The Smoking Gun that it was "exciting," though her husband disapproved.
"He tried to get me to stop," Favor Hamilton told the website. "He wasn't supportive of this at all."
Favor Hamilton said she revealed her true identity to some of her clients and suspected that one of them eventually called a reporter. "I'm owning up to what I did," Favor Hamilton said. "I would not blame anybody except myself. Everybody in this world makes mistakes. I made a huge mistake. Huge."
© 2012, The New York Times News Service