Suzy Favor Hamilton -- An Attempt to Understand

It's with more than a bit of hesitation that I offer some thoughts on the news of the day in the running world. The tendency to analyze the lives of people we do not know seems to me to be one of the most odious tendencies in contemporary culture -- it reduces lives which are always more complex than they seem and usually more incomprehensible than we would like to admit to simple and usually quite stupid narratives.

But I guess at a certain point, famous people are reduced to simple narratives. This is the price of fame.

Before you read this, I'd encourage you to read this piece written by Brooks Johnson, "But for the gRACE OF GOD." He actually knew Suzy as a person and athlete.

*  *  *

"Fear? If I have gained anything at all by damning myself, it is that I no longer have anything to fear."
--J. P. Sartre

Can you imagine what it takes to be the top runner in the country? To stand on the line and beat all comers? To not just be good, but to be the best? What would it take?

Imagine having that sort of power in your body. Imagine having that sort of power in your mind. And knowing, some day -- any day -- you will lose it.

How would it feel?

I think it would feel like standing on the edge of a cliff and throwing yourself out into space, over and over again. It would feel like having everything to lose, and not being afraid of losing it.

What would you have to do in training to convince yourself that you deserved that type of talent? What sort of psychological walls would you have to build to maintain that position?

I think these are the sorts of questions we have to ask when we examine the situation of Suzy Favor Hamilton. She built a career out on the edge, going places and doing things that simply cannot be comprehended by ordinary folks.

Distance runners are a compulsive lot. We are driven by forces that often seem larger than we are. These forces make us want to suffer; they make us want to train; they make us want to win. In Susy Favor Hamilton, these forces were really, really large.

So, imagine that you had built a life that was modeled around and based on these forces, on giving into them, on letting them drive you in training and racing to the places that few have gone. Not only were you brave enough to acknowledge them, you were brave enough to let them overcome you and thereby make you great. And then, one day it was over, and all that was left for you was a life without those forces. A normal life, with normal responsibilities.

Can you just turn the switch off?

If Suzy had been able to turn the switch off, could she have done what she did?

I know that this line of thought romanticizes the choices that she made, to some extent, just as we often romanticize mental illness. And we have examples of great athletes, even runners, who seem capable of embracing normal life. But there have been quite a few who struggled with the normal perhaps because they had touched something else, or perhaps because they simply weren't normal and couldn't be normal: Henry Rono, Gerry Lindgren, perhaps even Prefontaine...

So, after her running career was over, Suzy Favor Hamilton made a choice that she has admitted was irresponsible. She took her body and once again made it into an object of power and fascination and risk and great feeling.

She gave herself over again to the forces, the large forces. This is always irresponsible. It's also what is required to be great. The leap to this kind of greatness is profound. We should not be surprised that some athletes have a tough time crossing the chasm back to normality; I imagine it takes just as much effort and patience and will that it took to cross the chasm the first time -- and the only reward is a life like everyone else's.

Everyone else is now happy to judge Suzy because they of course would never do such a thing. Such a thing would never cross their minds, actually.

And that probably has a lot to do with why they are everyone else.


  1. I have had similar thoughts about Suzy (and other un-imaginable events). I am always a little dismayed when I hear someone say "I can't imagine..."

    Part of me wonders if others really can't imagine it, or are just being dis-honest in their public persona.

    I am very intrigued on this whole topic of imagination. Thanks for writing this thoughtful piece.

  2. Everyone knew her as a Middle Distance Runner, but now it turns out she was a Pole Vaulter.

    Emma Caulfield.

  3. Wow, helluva zinger at the end. Nice one.

  4. great article - second decent comment i've read - just livin' large i guess - shake your fist at the gods

  5. you guys are judging her. and you're judging everyone else you think is judging her.

    she enjoyed what she was doing. she said so, numerous times. she advertized, she kept doing it. she was scheduled to be in vegas from Jan 5 thru Feb 5. she advertised all the things she would do for money. there were a lot.

    So you're judging her by assuming she made a mistake, and you're admonishing everyone else not to judge her too harshly, but you're missing the point.

    she would still be doing it if she hadn't been caught. she liked being a hooker.

    i don't have a problem with that. but YOU apologists apparently do.

    1. Thanks for the comment, but I am not sure you got the meaning of the post.

      I also don't see how you can claim that I am judging on the one hand and that I am an apologist on the other hand. Aren't these opposite rhetorical positions?

      I'd appreciate more actual engagement with the piece rather than direct attack because it's difficult to know how to respond as I don't see where this comment actually touches the piece I've written here.

  6. you are assuming that what she did was wrong and trying to understand why a good person (in your mind) would end up doing what she did, thus inherently apologizing for her. ie she's had a rough time adjusting to being a normal person after being a world class athlete so she became a prostitute.

    But implicit in this argument is the judgment that what she did was wrong and that she really didn't want to do it. I think many might agree with you. but what if in truth she really wanted to continue doing it? then your search for the reasons why, and giving her an out are pointless, because she still secretly wants to be a hooker. get it?

    you are judging her as making a mistake because you think being a prostitute is a mistake. and then you are judging those who are being judgmental of her as being hypocritical and not understanding because they can't walk a mile in her shoes.

    i think there is a possibility that there are no mistakes in this story. she liked what she was doing.

    1. I'll say five things in reply:

      1. As I mentioned in the post, Suzy herself called her actions irresponsible.
      2. Whether she liked what she was doing or not seems to me to have little to do with whether what she did was right or wrong.
      3. Being irresponsible is not the worst thing in the world, and in fact I talk about it as a positive quality in the post.
      4. I think what most people find irresponsible is not the act of prostitution (which I think can be irresponsible in some cases and absolutely responsible in other cases), but the fact that she did it while being married.

      I also think you miscontrue my argument in the post above. I will concede, though, that my story here is highly speculative and probably misses the mark. That's why I call it "An ATTEMPT to Understand." This is what we do as human beings.

      All that said, I appreciate the passionate reply, Finally, an argument around here!

      I do agree that most people tend to judge prostitution as wrong without thinking about the fact that you have two consenting adults and there is no harm done. But when one of those adults has a marriage and a family and a professional image that is jeopardized by engaging in prostitution, there is quite a bit of room for harm to follow as a result of these actions. We are seeing it right now.

  7. Jeff,

    Have not read in a while and somehow thought you might write about this topic. I found your take interesting but I do wonder if this mentality is more common in everyone else than we know. It reminds me of that saying, " The only difference between "addiction" and "success" depends on what you fixate on." Such quips are extremely reductive but they do point out that compulsive behaviors can be interpreted as positive so long as their focus is on something culturally acceptable.


  8. I would like to know her beliefs, I can guess and would likely be correct. 

    It's great that I learned at a good young age that suicide is the ultimate selfish act (A. Pettigrew).  Also great that I learned that sex is sacred, worse you become a very shallow person if it's used the wrong way. 

    On the topic of not judging, I would like to say that I think that has become a warped philosophy.  Christ said go and sin no more. But people always leave that part out.  So if I say those very words from Christ then I'm Judgy Judgy.  1. Look where not judging has gotten us as a society. 2. Right this moment you, the reader, of my comments are likely judging me, it's probably brutal. 

    70% of Blacks are born to an unwed mother - ssshhhh, don't judge. 

    But there is also another idea of interest. This idea that you don't know what you are capable of in the future. This idea is mostly believed by secularist, the non-theistic. 

    One guy actually said how does he know if in 10 years he will or will not be a homosexual. What the?

    It's about your legacy. What will you be know for, what will you leave behind. 

    "In eulogy, I'd like to share that his last days were spent in Miami where he slept with the town, lots of strapping hunks in Miami."

    You have free will. 

    About Suzy Favor Hamilton, don't put anyone on a pedestal.  Man will fail you, God won't. 

    I once read a distance runner say that her BF dumped her telling her to "pack her sh*t and leave." What behavior instigated that request, probably extreme selfishness on the runners part.  A BF and future husband likely wants to get married, have kids and settle down. 

    I think it's in the realm of possibility, "perhaps", "I posit", that Suzy is very selfish person. 

    Does she have 6 kids? Prolly not.
    Idle hands drive you and your car to sin city.  :)

    But again, I think that we have free will and that is the perfect universe, else we are robots. So she can do what she wants.  If she is really God defiant then I say "live it up because this is as good as it gets.". 


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