Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness - Suzy Favor Hamilton (2015)
Chapter 5. CHASING GOLD
I loved Malibu right away. It was everything Wisconsin wasn’t: perpetually sunny and warm and possessed of a casual, anything-goes vibe I instantly adopted as my own. Just as Mark had been attractive to me because he was so different from the men I’d grown up with, Malibu was a whole new world, and I loved it. Maybe I hadn’t made it to UCLA for college as I’d dreamed, but now I was finally free to start living my own life, and I was going to do so in California.
We used the money from my Reebok contract and the endorsement deals I’d also signed with Proctor & Gamble (Pert Plus), Clairol, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Kikkoman Soy Sauce to put a down payment on a 1,300-square-foot house in a more affordable section of Malibu and soon settled into the laid-back beach lifestyle. Even though Mark was busy with law school and I was in training, with my sights set on the 1992 Olympics the following summer, we still managed to find time for nights out at our favorite restaurants and afternoons by the Pacific with friends. Having grown up in landlocked Wisconsin, I found the ocean mesmerizing and could spend hours walking along the shoreline, picking up shells and sea glass. And I loved to run down to the beach from our house as part of my daily training.
I was happier than I’d been in a long time. Best of all, I was free of the watchful eyes I’d constantly felt on me in Wisconsin. It was such a relief to get a break from always feeling that I had to be perfect, that everyone was watching me, that I was living for other people’s happiness. I’d sensed that my father didn’t completely support my decision to marry and move away. Of course, true to form, he’d never said anything outright, but there had been tension in the months leading up to our wedding and departure for California. I could sense that my dad felt that I didn’t fully appreciate all he had done to support my career. It seemed he felt left behind, that I had replaced him with first Coach Tegen and then Mark. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, and I definitely didn’t want to discuss them. It was easier to be far away. I was finally getting a taste of the independence that I had craved. The trouble is, I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t even know who I wanted to be. After having the Olympics in my sights for more than a decade, I’d be trying out for my first Olympic team in a year. But, for the first time since I started running, it wasn’t my sole obsession. I didn’t want to train constantly. I wanted to let go and live for once and enjoy our new life as newlyweds.
A few months after we arrived, I noticed that Peter seemed less engaged with my training and less interested in my opinion. Around the same time, I took a job as the assistant coach for the cross-country team at Pepperdine. The running coach there, Dick Kampmann, began taking over the workouts Peter sent me, making them his own. He was a more low-key coach, and his relaxed approach to running suited my new laid-back California lifestyle. As much as I knew Peter had done for me, I could feel the beginnings of burnout, and I wanted my life to contain more than just running. That summer of 1991, my success on the track was modest, but it seemed like I was getting more press and attention than ever. As we went into the Olympic trials in the spring of 1992, my image as the all-American golden girl brought all sorts of opportunities that went far beyond the track. I was approached about doing a line of fitness videos. And not only did I land on the cover of Olympian magazine and Runner’s World, but I found myself in the pages of Rolling Stone, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Elle. I liked all the attention and I was having fun, for once in my life as a runner. The years of anxiety and self-doubt had taken their toll, and I was eager to push those feelings aside and bask in the glow of this new attention. I still loved to run, but the thrill of modeling and being a celebrity became more and more attractive to me. And Reebok, seeing all of the positive attention I was garnering, liked what they were getting, even though I wasn’t dominating on the track. When I was asked—via my Reebok boss—to pose for Playboy, I was excited, but I immediately knew I couldn’t actually do it, not only because of how my family would react, but because in my mind, an all-American golden girl wouldn’t do something like that. By this point, I was very aware of my brand, and I also turned down a deal from Miller Brewing Company.
Going into the 1992 Olympic trials, I was a favorite to make the team. Not only had I won a record nine NCAA championships as a college runner, but I was running for Reebok, and they’d launched a huge promotional campaign around me going into the trials. I’d also qualified for the final of the Olympic trials in 1988, but my insecurity and anxiety had made me so convinced I didn’t belong on the team that I’d pulled out before the race. This time, there was no question I was a professional runner, but another problem presented itself.
I was nervous. This was what I had been working toward for most of my life. And to ratchet up the tension, among the competitors in my best event—the 1,500 meters—was my childhood idol Mary Decker Slaney. I couldn’t believe I would be sharing a track with the woman who had always inspired me. I didn’t know it, but I’d also be facing my future nemesis, Regina Jacobs, who I would regularly compete against throughout my professional career. It seemed like I was forever coming in second to her at U.S. Nationals, which messed with my mind to no end. No matter how hard I trained, she always had the ability to finish races strong in a way I often couldn’t. I cannot say I was surprised when she tested positive for steroid use in 2003, validating my long-held suspicions.
As we lined up at the starting blocks the day of the Olympic trials finals, it was hard not to watch Slaney’s pre-race ritual out of the corner of my eyes, even though I knew I had to focus on my own performance and quiet the jitters that could cause me to tighten up and choke midstride. Thankfully, when the gun went off, I was all instinct, all body, and my mind went quiet. This was the zone that I felt most comfortable in. I had been so focused on Mary Decker Slaney that I almost didn’t notice when Regina Jacobs suddenly pulled ahead to win the race. She was followed by her former Stanford teammate PattiSue Plumer in second place. I was stunned, but then, there I was, crossing the finish line in third place, with Mary Decker Slaney actually finishing after me in fourth place. I had run faster than my hero. And, most important, I had made the Olympic team.
It was traditional for runners who earned a place on the team to be given an American flag and sent on a victory lap. As I jogged down the track, waving my flag, it was as if my feet were bouncing a few feet off the ground, I was so buoyant with happiness. And then, there was Mark, wrapping me in his arms. That might have been the best moment of my professional running career to date. Everything I had wanted since I was twelve had finally come true. I was going to the Olympics in Barcelona.
This was before cell phones, so as soon as we got back to our hotel room to get ready for the celebratory dinner hosted by my Reebok rep, I called home. My mom and dad had seen my race on TV and were overjoyed for me. That felt so good after all they had done to support my running and how much I had longed to make them proud. Since leaving Wisconsin, I’d missed many family dinners and holidays, which especially displeased my sisters, and made us grow further apart. At the time, I was so focused on my new life that I didn’t really register their reaction. And since we never talked about anything as a family, it was easy to pretend nothing was wrong. My running trumped everything else in my life, distorting my view of what was important. After my sisters became moms, I felt I couldn’t be around their kids as much as I would have liked for fear I might get sick and miss a race or training. I knew my siblings were excited for me, but none of them called me to say so, and I didn’t think much about this omission. I also knew signs had already gone up in the gas stations and supermarkets of my hometown, congratulating me on my win and cheering me on to the Olympics. Unfortunately, such vocal support from my home state quickly turned my euphoria into a feeling of pressure, as my short-lived victory high was replaced by the greatest anxiety of my racing life. Now that I had accomplished my dream of making the Olympic team, I had to run in the Olympics and risk disappointing everyone who had believed in me and supported me along the way.
Sure that I wasn’t training or running at the level of the world’s best, I panicked. Peter agreed to meet me in Norbonne, France, where the U.S. Olympic track team was staging a prep site for the two weeks before the Olympics. I desperately tried to make up for lost time under his guidance. But before I knew it, I had to leave him behind and travel on to the Olympics in Spain alone.
Not every athlete participates in the opening ceremonies because it means standing for hours, which is exhausting. But this was my first Olympics, and I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity for anything. It felt amazing to be out on the field with the most elite athletes in America, all of us dressed in matching uniforms and basking in the culmination of years, even decades, of work. We were all big sports fans, of course, and so athletes kept popping away from where they were supposed to be standing with their team in order to go get their picture taken with someone they particularly admired. A seven-foot-tall man approached me, and as he smiled down at me, I recognized him as former Duke star basketball player Christian Laettner. He was there to play on what had been dubbed the “Dream Team.”
“Hey, Suzy, I remember watching you at your NCAA race our senior year in college,” he said. “Can I get a picture with you?”
“With me?” I said, laughing that a Dream Teamer could want a photo with me.
As we posed, he looked over to where his teammates stood, hulking above all of the regular-sized athletes. “Do you want to come meet the Dream Team?” he asked.
“Oh my gosh,” I said. “Of course I do.”
I felt a little nervous as we approached Charles Barkley, David Robinson, and Magic Johnson, but they were so incredibly nice, it quickly put me at ease.
“Suzy, I just saw you in that Pert Plus ad you did,” Magic said.
What, Magic Johnson knew who I was?
He leaned down and kissed my cheek. Mark is not going to believe this, I thought, knowing what a huge Lakers fan he was and had turned me into.
By the night before my preliminary, all the good feeling I had experienced at the opening ceremony had evaporated, and I was back in the dark, extremely negative head space that plagued me during competition. In a panic going into the Olympics, I had redoubled my training with my college coach, Peter Tegen, but there was only so much we could do in that time. I knew I was in no condition to beat the world’s best, and Peter was not with me, so he wasn’t there to give me any final words of wisdom now. And I was without my security blanket, Mark. Per official rules, no spouses were allowed to stay at the Olympic Village, so he stayed with my boss from Reebok. Little did I know that the mood at the Olympic Village was more spring break than a focused training zone. The athletes who had already competed in their events were ready to party, and the building in which I was staying had the chaotic vibe of a college dorm, complete with loud music, drunken shouts, and laughter. I was shocked to learn that thousands of condoms are made available in the village each year, and the Olympians were apparently making good use of them. As the minutes ticked by, I lay in bed, listening to the chaos, growing more and more agitated about my race, and thinking about how the less sleep I got, the worse I would do. Images of my upcoming race flashed through my mind, only they were the inverse of the positive visualization exercises recommended by coaches. I saw myself failing again and again and again. Finally, it was time to get up. I don’t think I slept at all that night. I was very tired and dazed. I would have rather done anything than run an Olympic race that day, but I didn’t have a choice.
I started my pre-race ritual, warming up and stretching. By the time I took the bus over to the warm-up track, my head was plagued with the familiar litany: Why can’t my leg be broken? Why am I here? I didn’t have Peter or Mark, who wasn’t allowed access to me, there to calm me down. Of course, I was so used to doing what I was supposed to do that it never would have occurred to me to tell Mark how nervous I was or tell him that I didn’t want to run. I just pretended everything was fine, like I’d been doing for years, even though I felt absolutely terrible. I was thrumming with anxiety, to the point where I could barely focus on what was happening around me as I took my position. And then, I started running. I was putting on a good face, but I didn’t feel like I belonged there among these elite runners. And then the worries flooded me. I tightened up with a lap and a half to go. I was living the nightmare that many runners have: my limbs became impossibly heavy, and it felt like I was dragging my arms and legs through quicksand. It was over, and I knew it. The other racers flew past. I finished last.
I was devastated. But the humiliation wasn’t over. My parents had flown to Spain to watch me race, as had a benefactor from Wisconsin who had given me money to help pay for my training. My parents told me that he was expecting to have a meal with me, and I had to attend. The last thing I wanted to do was sit through a meal with a fake smile on my face while everyone tried to make me feel better, but I couldn’t speak up. I went to lunch, suffering through the hour until I could go hide. I couldn’t bear to go back to the Olympic Village, where I was sure everyone knew who I was and that I’d let down my team and my country by losing when I’d been expected to do more. That night, Mark and I went to sleep early on the floor of the hotel room rented by my Reebok liaison. We got up early in the morning while he was still asleep and went straight to the airport. My first Olympics were over.
Following my disappointment in Barcelona, I became aware of a rising backlash against me in the running world. I heard whispers that I wasn’t good enough to attract all the money and attention I’d received going into the Olympics. Other female athletes criticized me for getting praised for my looks. I was making a lot of money, more than many of my peers who were running as fast or faster than I was, and they felt I was getting more attention than I deserved. All of this cut into my already shaky self-esteem. When I’d appeared on the cover of Runner’s World the previous year, they’d severely airbrushed my photo, decreasing my bust size so I appeared flat chested, the way female runners were supposed to look. I hated that my breasts still drew attention to me and made me look anything other than the absolute ideal runner. That summer, I secretly paid eight thousand dollars for breast reduction surgery, even though the doctors warned me I might have trouble breast-feeding if I ever became a mother. Once I was healed, I was happy that at least I looked the way runners were supposed to look. But the surgery alone wasn’t going to put me back in top form. As much as I’d enjoyed my time in the paradise that was Malibu and a brief escape from the normal intensity of my running life, I always thought my coaches and father expected more of me, and as long as I was disappointing them, I couldn’t be happy anymore. Although I was not enjoying the competitive aspect of running, I wanted to win for others in my life, and so couldn’t feel good unless I was winning again for them. I missed training with Peter the way we had when I was in college, and I longed to have a more involved coach again, but I wasn’t ready to move back to Wisconsin. I wasn’t performing as well as I should be, and that meant that I had to find a new coach who could help me to be the runner I knew I could be. Hopefully this would help me to find my love of running again. My thoughts immediately went to my longtime idol, Mary Decker Slaney, whose former coach, Dick Brown, was based in Eugene, Oregon. A good runner friend of mine trained with Dick and had suggested I give him a try. It would be a big change from Malibu. Mark still had a year of law school at Pepperdine left, but I didn’t feel like I could wait. I moved to Eugene alone and we spent a semester apart, and then he finished up his law degree at the University of Oregon so he could be with me, always sacrificing for me and my running career.
The change was exciting, and I threw myself into a new regimen and life. My new coach had strong opinions about many aspects of my life, even those that I felt weren’t directly related to my running. He grew irritated with my post-race ritual of calling my dad to tell him how I’d done, as my dad expected. He thought my dad was overly involved in my life, and he encouraged me to finally create the distance I’d long been craving. When my dad criticized me once for losing a race, Coach Brown was extremely upset.
I continued to be a natural pleaser who found comfort in being told what to do—by my father, my coaches, and my husband. But Coach Brown took this further. One day, after he’d led me through my usual series of sprints and my weight routine, he sat down with me. He was a micromanager, and I assumed we were going to talk about technique or new training goals.
“Suzy, there’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about,” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked, eager to do whatever he asked.
“It’s about your performance,” he said. “If you really want to race well, you’re going to have to stop having sex before races.”
I looked down quickly, blushing. Even though Mark and I continued to have a loving and adventurous sex life, this conversation with my coach was way beyond my comfort level.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“I mean you need all of your energy to race. When you have sex, you deplete your testosterone levels, which you need to perform. I don’t want any of that testosterone to go to waste. So no sex the day before a race. Or the day of. I’m your coach. I know what’s best for you.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding, too embarrassed to look up.
I felt myself curl up inside, awkward and uneasy in my own body, like I had been when the male coach had been caught videotaping my breasts, or when Coach Peter told me about the letter recommending I wear two sports bras. I’d been so uncomfortable about the unwanted attention that I’d had a breast reduction. But nothing was enough. My body wasn’t mine. It belonged to my sport. My coach. Magazine editors. My peers.
Mark picked me up from practice as usual that day, and as soon as I was in the car with him, I told him what Coach Brown had said.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Mark said.
I sighed and looked out the window. I missed Malibu and the beach and our friends. I was working so hard, only to be devastated by anxiety and the constant assessment of every part of my life and body. I wanted to be invisible.
Once again, my best friend Mary came to my rescue. Mary had given up running in college when she realized she didn’t have the passion to do everything that went into competing at the professional level. She was now a successful lobbyist. Even still, she came to my meets when she could. That summer she flew to Europe to watch me run and enjoy some time abroad with us. It only took her a few days to get a handle on something that had been nagging at me for months. She didn’t speak to me directly because she knew how personal a runner’s relationship with her coach is, but while she and Mark were sitting on the beach in Monte Carlo, she told him that she couldn’t understand why I was working with Coach Brown. She thought he was terrible for me because of the way he smothered me. As soon as Mark told me what Mary had said, I knew she was right. But changing coaches was a big deal. We’d made a major move to Eugene, and another big move seemed daunting. Plus, my results had improved from what they’d been in Malibu. Even though I wasn’t happy, I kept my head down and kept my sights on the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
I was overjoyed to qualify for the team again, although Dick had me compete in two events—the 800 and the 1,500, a decision I questioned, and I only made the team for the 800. Although the 1,500 was my specialty, I had run out of gas going into the final after running six rounds in less than a week, and finished last. To be honest, I didn’t have particularly high expectations for the Atlanta games, but I tried to focus on the fact that I had made my second Olympic team. And then that June, the unthinkable happened: my longtime idol and Coach Brown’s former athlete, Mary Decker Slaney, was suspended by the International Amateur Athletic Federation on suspicion of using performance-enhancing drugs. Even though her suspension was later lifted, the scandal cast a shadow over her reputation as a runner. I couldn’t believe she might have taken drugs. I knew they were everywhere in the sport, and I’d long struggled to keep a positive attitude about being beaten by runners who were giving performances that seemed like they must be drug enhanced.
I didn’t win in Atlanta. I wasn’t surprised, but I was still disappointed. Once again the whisper campaign started. I wasn’t living up to all the hype. Reebok was thinking about bringing an end to their sponsorship of runners, which would mean cutting me, and Nike didn’t seem overly interested. The public only cared about track during the Olympics, and I had never won a medal. I wondered if I was being naïve about drugs. I’d always vowed to run clean, but maybe that was a mistake.
When we got back to Eugene, I sat down with Coach Brown. “Am I missing the boat here?” I said. “Should I be using drugs? Everybody seems to be doing them.”
He held my gaze for a long time, letting me know how serious he was.
“You are absolutely not going to do drugs,” he said. “You don’t need them. You’re talented enough.”
I was relieved. I didn’t want to break the rules. I was a good girl. But, still, I wondered what I needed to do to win.
“I guess I’m just a little frustrated with where our training is going, then,” I said. “I sometimes just don’t think it’s intense enough.”
He quickly reassured me, outlining a scientific plan for a new approach to our workouts that would bring my performance to a higher level. But I’d heard this from him before, and I’d never seen the results I’d been promised. I wanted, needed, to win. I should have pushed back this time, but I wasn’t strong enough for that.
In 1996, I was approached about doing a swimsuit calendar, and I immediately loved the idea. Even though I’d been self-conscious about my large breasts before my surgery, I was comfortable showing off my body off the track. I’d even gone topless on a beach in Europe when I competed there, although Mark worried the whole time that I’d be spotted and photographed, leading to a scandal, and so I finally put my top back on at his urging. I wanted to do something that would make me feel good, for a change, when racing wasn’t doing it for me. I loved every aspect of putting the calendar together, from the shoot on a beach in Hawaii, which the entertainment news show Extra sent a crew to cover, to the process by which we chose the twelve photos we would use for the calendar. When I received boxes of the finished product, I was proud that I’d finally created something I’d enjoyed and was an expression of my personality. The calendar wasn’t available in retail stores, but we advertised it a bit, and it became an instant success. We quickly sold out of the five thousand copies we’d printed, and it seemed like we could sell as many again if we printed more. And then our phone rang. It was Dad.
“What is going on with this ridiculous swimsuit calendar of yours?” he growled into the phone. “I didn’t even know anything about it, and suddenly, I’m getting teased at work. You’ve really embarrassed me.”
“Dad, this is something I wanted to do,” I said, even though I felt queasy standing up to my father. “I love to model.”
He was angry and embarrassed, believing the calendar reflected poorly on our family, and I was feeling worse by the minute. I’d finally found something I really enjoyed, and now my dad was taking all the joy away.
“I wonder if I was a stripper, Dad,” I said, “would you disown me?”
He didn’t answer the question. By the time I hung up the phone, I was anxious and depressed and feeling plenty of guilt. When Mark came home not long after, I was still crying.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“My dad called and he’s really angry about my swimsuit calendar,” I said. “He wants me to stop doing it.”
Mark had been completely supportive of the entire project, even helping me to pick out the swimsuits I was photographed in, and he paused now before taking a side.
“You loved doing the calendar,” he said. “And it’s doing really well. If we print an additional ten thousand, I’m sure we can sell them out. But it’s your call.”
Within a few days, I stopped selling the calendar. I still couldn’t bear to make my father unhappy. But I was angry about his reaction and the fact that I’d caved to his pressure. And so, even though I wasn’t strong enough to fully rebel, I did pull back from my parents even more. And this was a crucial moment for me to do so because Mark and I had decided to make another major change. Every time I got tempted to focus on something other than running, like modeling or public appearances, they took me away from what I was here to do: run fast. It was time to double down on my training. Modeling was flattering and fun. But at the same time I still wanted to win. The inner conflict was tearing me up.
Although the next Olympics were still three and a half years away, I was going to show the world what I could do. I’d been a professional runner for six years, but I hadn’t achieved anything like the success I’d had in college. And I knew there was only one man who could get me back to the competitive level I’d been at then: my old coach, Peter Tegen. For some reason, training with him long distance never worked as well as it did when we were on the track together. It was time to go home. It was scary for me to be moving close to my parents again, just as our relationship had grown more strained. Such tension was one of the reasons I’d left in the first place, and the physical distance between us had felt like a good thing to me. But Mark really felt the move was what I needed, if success on the track was my goal, and I eventually agreed. I was sick of hearing the whispers about how I wasn’t living up to expectations. I was sick of mediocrity. I wanted to win.
In early 1997, we moved back to Madison. Immediately, Peter and I fell back into our old rapport, and my running began to improve. I had a great year in 1997, winning in Paris and Lausanne. And then, in 1998, I had one of the best running moments of my life, competing in one of my favorite venues: the Hercules Meet in Monte Carlo. Because of the upswing in my career, Nike had finally come calling, and they’d written a clause into my contract stating that if I could run a mile in under four minutes, I’d receive a one-hundred-thousand-dollar bonus. The race happened to fall on my thirtieth birthday. I didn’t win the race. I came in eighth, actually. But I ran it in a personal best, 3:59, which meant I’d earned my sub-four-minute time bonus, and I felt like I was back where I wanted to be, running the best I could at that point, holding my own with the top athletes in the world.
My happiness didn’t last long. That night, while I was attending a post-race celebration party, the meet promoter for one of the most prestigious meets in the world pulled me aside for a private conversation.
“You could change the sport of track and field,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, feeling proud.
“I mean it. With everything you’ve done with your modeling and the press you’ve received, you could really help the sport in America. But you have to do better. You have to win, and to do that, you know what you have to do.”
My smile instantly faded. I stepped back from him a little, tears forcing their way out. I was shocked and offended by what he’d just said without saying it: in order to be the best, I had to use steroids. If I did, I could change a sport I loved dearly. If I didn’t, it was my fault if I lost.
“Excuse me,” I said, wishing Mark were there to defend me, as I pushed away from him and into the crowd. I never spoke to him again.
The problem with being a top athlete is that there’s always another race, and no matter how many times you’ve won before, you have to keep winning to maintain your reputation. The next year, 1999, was a rough year for me. I tore my Achilles tendon in an early indoor race in Boston while setting the indoor American record in the 800 meters. I missed the rest of the ’99 season and was initially told by my doctors that my career might be over. I was determined to run and prove them wrong.
I’d continued to maintain some distance from my parents following their disapproval of my swimsuit calendar. But when I did go to their house for a visit, it was impossible not to notice how my brother’s condition had changed, although my parents didn’t discuss the subject. We didn’t know it at the time but, after years of hanging on to his mental health, he’d stopped taking his meds. This had allowed him to lose at least forty pounds, and he looked better than he had in years. Both Mark and I couldn’t help but compliment him when we saw him at my parents’ house at the end of the summer. What we later learned was that his decision to go off his medication was a part of a downward spiral that would cause him to give his money and belongings away, paint graffiti all over his house and car, and then take his own life on September 9, 1999.
I was shocked of course. We all were. None of us had thought his illness would ever really lead to this. That fateful day had felt a little strange to begin with, and although I’d gone to train at the university gym with a friend, I paused in my workout to call Mark, which I never did. When I was training, I was training. When Mark heard my voice on the phone there was a long silence. After what seemed like an hour, Mark finally spoke.
“Suzy, it’s your brother.”
As soon as I heard these words, and the tone of voice with which Mark spoke them, somehow I knew Dan had died.
I dropped the phone and fell to my knees in the coach’s office, where I had gone to make my call. When I picked up the phone again, I had just one question.
“Why? Why did this happen?” I asked again and again.
“Suzy, you need to get home,” Mark said.
As I sobbed, he talked me through a plan where I would return to the gym, tell my friend what had happened and follow her to my house in my car, where Mark waited for me, so she could be sure I made it home safely. During the half-hour drive, my tears dried up, and I became like a zombie, totally checked out from reality and the pain it contained.
As usual, I went into my default mode. I trained, or cross-trained at least. As soon as my brother’s funeral was over, I left for the airport to fly to Albany for an appearance I’d promised to make at a fundraiser in honor of a young girl who’d passed away, and then to Limerick for a much-anticipated miracle treatment I needed for my Achilles, skipping the reception my parents had planned at their house. My relationship with my sisters was already tense, and this was the final straw for them. They went off on me, telling me I was selfish, putting another family’s loss and my career before my family. But I didn’t know what else to do, and even when I tried to explain this to my sisters, they wouldn’t listen. Following the surgery I’d required on my Achilles, I hadn’t run pain-free in nearly a year, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. I needed to do something to feel better. I needed to run. I limped through my physical therapy in Ireland, constantly thinking about my brother’s final moments as he’d jumped off a nine-story building to his death. I was haunted. Desperate, I attended church in Ireland, where I was made to feel very welcome. This helped, as did the letter I received telling me that my appearance in Albany had been very healing for the community. Slowly, I began to recover from the devastating loss of my brother, but his death still left a hole in my heart.
The intensely painful treatment worked. When I was finally well enough to start racing again in 2000, Mark suggested I dedicate that whole season to my brother’s memory and add Favor back to the name under which I competed. It felt like the least I could do.
The shadow of Dan added another layer to an already high-stakes year for me. I was thirty-two years old, and it would be my third attempt at the Olympics. Mark and I had been married for almost ten years but had put off having a family. I felt like I had to finally make good on all the sacrifices that Mark, my parents, and my coaches had made for so many years. I had to win.
After the severity of my injury the previous year, it was amazing that I was running at all. But I didn’t take that into consideration as I geared up for the 2000 European season after qualifying for the Olympic team by coming in second—of course, to Regina Jacobs—at the Olympic trials in the 1,500 meters. I had pushed my training harder than ever, feeling like I had so much to make up for—my past two Olympic disappointments, the pain my family was experiencing over the death of my brother. If I could just bring home a gold medal, we’d at last have something to be happy about.
A runner can typically peak only once in a season, so coaches try to have this peak at the time of the season’s biggest race, after which it’s difficult to run quite so fast because of natural wear and tear and physical and psychological exhaustion. That year, I was running great—too great, actually. I peaked in Europe just after the Olympic trials, running my career best, and a seasonal world’s fastest, in the 1,500 meters, 3:57, in Oslo, and establishing myself as the favorite in Sydney. This was just a couple tenths of a second off the American record set years before by Mary Decker Slaney. Although I injured my hamstring soon after and missed two weeks of training, there was nothing to do but keep running, especially because I was the favorite for the 2000 Olympics, and Nike had me shoot a major television commercial just before I left for Sydney. Unfortunately, the commercial itself was met with criticism—from my mom, who thought that the portrayal of me running from an attacker reflected badly on our family, given Dan’s death by suicide, and from some feminists, who condemned what they claimed was a message of violence against women. I thought that the message was a positive one: I could escape a killer without needing a man to come to my rescue. Even so, the money had been spent, and I felt pressure from Nike to make good by winning in Sydney. Not only that, but I wanted to win so badly for my family. I had a gold-or-bust attitude; anything less than the best would be a complete failure.
Things were shaky from the start. I had two rounds before my Olympic final, and while I won the first round, I only felt okay, not great. In the second round, I came in second, but it was not as easy as it should have been, and I felt terrible, like I’d already spent everything. I knew I was in trouble for my final race two days later. I wanted to flee. I followed the other runners in a single file line through the tunnel from the locker room, a television cameraman close by my side. Even with a huge fake smile plastered on my face, I was worried the camera would capture my lack of confidence somehow. My brain started swirling with negative thoughts and doubts. The crowd was so loud. I glanced at the people in the stands, cheering. Stay focused, I thought. Then my eyes darted around at my competitors. Can they see the fear in my eyes? I wondered. Why can’t this be over? Why don’t I just pull out of the race? I wanted so badly to silence my critics, but I was such a mental mess that I just didn’t feel like I had it in me. I looked to the area of the stands where I knew Mark was cheering me on, wishing he would come down to the track and rescue me. I felt so alone that I felt my throat clog with suppressed tears. I can’t cry. I have to run. I can’t let him down. He has given up so much of his career for me and this moment. My family is watching, too. I have to win for them. It would bring so much joy to them after my brother’s suicide. I could help take away some of the pain. Focus, Suzy, focus.
The official called us all to get on the starting line. I was assigned to be the first runner, closest to the inside rail of the track. This meant I had to get off to a fast start in order to avoid getting boxed in by my competitors. I adjusted the blue sunglasses that matched my USA Olympic uniform, a nervous habit, wishing the cameraman would get his lens out of my face. I shook both legs out, patted the numbers on the side of my uniform so they wouldn’t fall off. Why are they holding us so long at the start? Can’t we get this over? My heart felt as if it was going to pound itself to dust, and I hadn’t started running. Then the gun went off, and the sound was so loud, it echoed in my head as I took my first strides. My newly sharpened spikes gripped the track’s surface. Around me, everyone was pushing to get into the position needed to win the race. I tried to push my way in, too, focusing on the strategy Peter had drilled into me. But with every stride, the only thought in my head was I just want this nightmare to be over.
After running three laps in sheer panic, I had one more lap to go. But the closer I got to the finish line the more certain I became that something terrible was going to happen, any second. The gusty exhales of the runners behind me grew louder, making me feel like I was being hunted like an animal in the wild. My body turned to stone. I couldn’t take another step. But I had to. I wanted to vanish, just disappear, but there was nowhere to go. I tried to hold on, but the tornado of negative thoughts and doubts was spinning through my brain faster and faster. My legs grew heavier and heavier, and with 150 meters left, one by one, the other runners passed me, until there was no one left but me. I was going to come in last, in my last Olympic race. No gold for Mark, no gold for Peter, no gold for my parents, no gold for my brother’s memory. Heartbroken, panicked, almost dumb with grief, I just stopped. I told myself to fall, and then, I fell. Feeling the track against the bare skin of my arms and legs, I felt like such an idiot, a fuck-up, but at least I didn’t have to run anymore. And then I realized I was still far from the finish line, and I couldn’t leave this race unfinished. I forced myself up onto my feet and made myself finish, but when I saw the media crowding around me, I couldn’t bear the shame of what I’d just done, and I collapsed again. It was over. I closed my eyes, woozy with emotion and exertion, and felt the medics lift me off the ground and into the air.
Untreated bipolar disorder is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. No matter how much a person might love the high of the manic episodes when they come or might want to climb out of the lows in order to feel better, function normally, and even be happy, this is not a condition that can be self-regulated. This is not a matter of goal setting or positive thinking or getting some rest. Studies show that 15 to 17 percent of those whose bipolar disorder goes untreated ultimately die by suicide. And that’s only the cost that can be measured. Not to mention the sufferers who, without realizing their brain chemistry is driving them to do so, turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, anything to quiet the torment of their rushing mind. And in so doing, lose jobs, destroy marriages, break up families, all the while being blamed for their reckless behavior, as if they had any choice in the matter.
Even my brother, Dan, who was diagnosed relatively early, when he was still in high school, and treated with electroshock therapy and medication, still became a casualty of the disease. Of course, back then, getting the diagnosis wasn’t the same as gaining an understanding of what it meant. Learning that Dan was bipolar in no way prepared my family or me for the struggles he would face in his too-short lifetime. I first learned of Dan’s specific diagnosis not long after he received it. But, at the time, I was too young to understand what bipolar disorder was. When his behavior was at its most destructive—and painful for my family—I resorted to the easy slurs of the day, calling him crazy in my mind and wishing he would just snap out of it so my mom would stop crying. Looking back, I’m embarrassed by my own ignorance and regretful that I didn’t have the same knowledge I do now. But I still had so much to learn back then, and unfortunately, I would have to learn it the hard way.