Interview: Suzy Favor Hamilton
By Peter Gambaccini

Suzy Favor Hamilton competes at the 2002 USATF Winter Cross Country Nationals.
(Photo: New York Road Runners)
Suzy Favor Hamilton runs in (and wins) the 1,500m at the 2001 Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, OR.
(Photo: Victah@Photo Run)
Suzy Favor Hamilton and Sarah Schwald run with the Northeast Girls the day before the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships.
(Photo: New York Road Runners)

Suzy Favor Hamilton is, along with Regina Jacobs, one of the two genuinely world class American women middle distance runners of the past decade. A three-time Olympian, she had the fastest 1,500-meter time in the world in 2000 with a victorious 3:57.40 at Oslo's Bislett Games and has a best mile of 4:22.93. Favor Hamilton, who now divides her time between New Glarus, Wisconsin and Malibu, California, has won three USATF titles outdoors and three indoors and was a nine-time NCAA champion at the University of Wisconsin. Her career has also had its well-publicized disappointments, like her DNFs in the 1,500 at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and a heat of the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton. She had not raced since the end of the 2001 outdoor track season when she made her somewhat surprising appearance at the 2002 USATF Cross Country Championships in Vancouver, Washington and finished third behind Jacobs and Carrie Tollefson in the 4k competition.
(Interview posted 2/25/02)

Your own website mentioned you were going to the USATF Cross Country meet, but your name wasn't in any pre-race publicity, so your entry wasn't too well-known. When did you decide to enter the cross country championships and what were some of the reasons?
I think I entered maybe two weeks beforehand. I really didn't know until then if I was going to do it. But when we were out in LA (Malibu) training, I had about five weeks of training before the U.S. Championships. Training was going pretty well, so I decided 'I might as well just jump in this race and see how it goes, I don't have any huge expectations, but I'd love to be in the top three, that would be awesome.' So it was definitely planned, but I knew that I wouldn't be in my peak condition where I wanted to be. I felt like I really needed another month of training.

What had been your most recent race before this one?
It would have been the end of track (season). It's pretty unique, because it's not like me to just jump in a race.

Is it pretty important at this point in your career to look for something that's fresh?
It is, and this is what this was to me. It was something totally different. I hadn't run cross country for 11 years. I just forgot what it was like, so it was all new again.

How well did you do in cross country at the University of Wisconsin?
My freshman year, I was second to Angela Chalmers (at the NCAA Championships), and my senior year, I was second to Sonia O'Sullivan. One other year I was anemic and ran pretty poorly in cross country. But it went really well my freshman and senior year.

And you must have really enjoyed that, we'd guess.
I did. I wasn't a big fan of running in the snow and the cold courses. That just didn't appeal to me.

But this course in Vancouver, Washington wasn't so bad.
This wasn't so bad. But the footing is so different than track. I had forgotten how different it is. In California, I had been training on flat grass, like a golf course. So when I got to Vancouver, it was a lot more difficult than it had been in California. So that was a whole new element. During the race, I'm thinking 'Oh my gosh, this is much harder than I thought it would be.' I hadn't done any training on hills.

Have you decided, based on some injuries in recent years, that indoor track might not be wise thing for you to do because of the tight turns?
Yeah. I may run indoor track the last year I compete, but other than that, I think it's just better for me to stay away from indoor track. It's just too risky.

A bit of a shame, because you'd been going to Boston and trying indoor records (her 1:58.92 for 800 is considered a share of the U.S. mark with Mary Decker Slaney's 1:58.9) and that sort of thing.
I love indoor track. I just love the closeness of the fans. To me, that's the best.

Right after you did the USATF Cross Country, you seemed uncertain as to whether you would go to the World Championships in Dublin. Have you made any decision on that?
I have decided to go. I had said in some interviews that I'd go for sure if Regina goes. I still haven't heard from Regina and I decided 'You know what, if she doesn't go, we still have a great team and we can still do great things.' I want to go. I'm having fun doing this.

How did the offseason go for you, from the end of the track season until now. Was it pretty smooth or did you start to encounter some new injury problems?
Well, after the end of September, I took a month off. I think this is very common for a lot of runners; I came off of a not-so-good race that I ended on (a DNF in Brussels), so you tend to be really Gung Ho and you want to get out there and really push it and get back in there and prove yourself again. And that's kind of the approach I took. I just started training too hard for putting in way too many miles for what my body can handle and I got injured again. I had some knee pain and IT band problems. I went to Ireland to see my (physical) therapist, Gerard Hartmann, and he was able to get rid of it in a week and a half. I was able to really gradually get back into training, and probably trained three weeks before I got to LA. Actually, on my drive out to LA, I reinjured myself running in Omaha, Nebraska. I'd been sitting in the car and went for a run and it was really cold, and I strained my calf. So I was out for another week. After that, I started my five weeks of training before the cross country.

During the month you take off in the fall, what kind of things do you do?
I usually really dive into my art. My art gives me the same high that I get from running. If I can't run, I'm still able to please myself. I do other things like mountain biking, playing with my dogs. I'm really a homebody. I love being at home, working in my yard, working in the garden.

What kind of art do you do?
Mosaics and stained glass. I work a lot with soldering and lead. I work with some little dangerous elements.

Have you displayed or sold your art?
I have sold quite a few pieces. All of it you can view on my website under "Interests." It seems like as soon as I make it, I sell it. I've been an artist since I was in kindergarten, and my father's an artist and my brother who passed away is an artist.

Will there be much different, from past seasons, about the way you prepare for outdoor track this year?
Yeah, definitely. Last year, I was out for four months at the beginning of the year because of a broken ischium bone in my ass. Can I say ass? So I really had no base; it really screwed up my season. This year, I'm able to have some time to put in the base like I'm doing now , and adding cross country is just helping me to work even harder during this time. Normally, I'm not working as hard as I am right now, and I think this is really going to help me for the track season.

Do you think all of your racing outdoors will be at the 1,500 and mile?
Nope, I plan to maybe do a little longer - probably not shorter. I can't see myself doing any 800s. But definitely longer, 3,000s and 5,000s. I'm going to open up at Drake (Relays in April) in the 3,000.

But will there definitely still be a focus on the 1,500?
We'll focus on the 1,500, but we'll see what happens in the longer events. I'm definitely enjoying it, and I think as long as you're enjoying it, that's the key.

Is part of the reason just that as you put in the work year after year after year, you're just stronger for the longer stuff now?
Yeah, and I think you have to have a different mental outlook, and I've always not liked the distance stuff. I was just kind of turned off by it, and now I'm starting to find a new love for it. But you definitely have to really like it, 'cause it's too intense.

Do you think you still have as much raw speed as when you were younger?
I do, but I need to concentrate and work on it all year round, and that's something I'm not willing to do anymore because of injuries. But I definitely still have the speed; I don't feel like the speed has left me yet. And that American record in the 1,500 is still out there, and that's something I'm still shooting for. And it's got to happen sooner rather than later if it's going to happen - in the next couple of years. Hopefully this year, I can get it.

Well getting under the 4:00 barrier, which is psychological, is big right there.
Exactly. Once you do it, that's they key. You just have to do it once, and then you can do it again and again.

The most recent Olympic period and World Championships came with a lot of expectations. Is it easier for you now to just run for the enjoyment of that sport and whatever your own internal purpose is?
Yeah, since 2000 and everything that I've been through has given me a new perspective on the sport. Even if this was an Olympic year or World Championship year, I feel like as a person I've grown and changed a lot because of all of the mishaps and adversity that I've gone through in my career. I honestly can say it's helped me to be a better person and to have a more positive outlook on the sport and a better perspective. If anything, I've gained a balance in my life that I didn't have before.

So you can line up for any race and just say 'I'm ready to enjoy this race'?
Exactly, where maybe I wasn't enjoying it before and putting too much pressure on myself. I was watching Olympic ice skating and watched Sarah Hughes win the gold and she looked like she was having the time of her life. I said to myself "that's how sports are supposed to be." She was smiling and enjoying it.

To contrast, when Michelle Kwan was warming up just a few seconds before her routine and I saw the look on her face, I thought 'this isn't going to work for her.'
You know, I saw that, too, because I've been there, and you can see that.

Well, when you say you've been there and you saw that, did you ever go back to tape of the Sydney Olympics and look at yourself at the start of it and see that in your face?
Oh yeah. I actually went to a sports psychologist. It took me a long time before I could even watch that race. Now I have no problem whatsoever watching that race. But I'm glad that I had some help to get over that. That's made the major change in my life.

But you could see that the look on your face at the start was like ….
Like a scared dear about to be hit by a car.

So the panic attacks will be a thing of the past, you think?
I really do, because that's something I have total control of now, and I won't put myself in a situation to let that happen. And I know now, I honestly know, how to prevent that.

You're still doing most of your training in Wisconsin, and the American who really made a lot of progress in the 1,500 last year was Sarah Schwald. She said that being on the circuit with you in Europe was helpful to her. What sort of things did you see that might have made you think she was ready to get down to 4:04?
Well, I think Sarah has just progressed so much in the last year that if she keeps this progression, she'll easily go under 4:00. She seemed, honestly, to handle the whole European thing with ease, like it was no big deal, like she was in the U.S. meets. I think with her attitude, she has so much going for her, and she's such a hard worker that if anybody can do it, Sarah can.

We heard that you really enjoyed your role as appointed team captain of the Northeast high school girls at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships. What was involved in that?
They were awesome. I didn't train with them. I was assigned a team. I actually wanted the Midwest team, but someone else had requested it. So I had the Northeast, which was just wonderful. What my job was was to just help the girls out and give them some encouragement. But I get very involved, and I felt this was my team and I had been coaching these girls forever. I think it was just because these girls were so sweet and I get so attached with so quickly that to me, this was almost like a calling, like 'Oh my gosh, this is what I need to do, to be involved with high school kids more.' I enjoy competing the most, but this is probably the second best thing to do. I think why I like it so much is that I feel like I can really relate to them. Being a young runner myself, traveling all over the world at an early age, I feel like I know exactly what they are going through. I also remember, when I was younger, older Olympians coming up to me and giving me the time of day, and that made such a huge impression on me as a young child. I think it even helped me to work harder, to be better. So I feel like maybe I can have that influence on these kids. I definitely want to be involved with Foot Locker as long as they'll have me. I was out dancing with the kids until midnight after the race. It was awesome.

Do you remember a particular Olympian who was nice to you at that age?
Cindy Bremser. She was fourth (in the 3,000) in the '84 Olympics. She went to Wisconsin. I was at a cross country race and she came up to me and introduced herself and walked me to her car and in the back of her trunk she had autographed pictures of herself. She wrote out a picture, took the time to write specifically for me. It was wonderful. I just remember thinking 'This woman is taking all this time out just for me?'It was really a cool feeling.

You were still in high school at the time?
I was still in high school, yeah. Maybe she was trying to recruit a little, too!

When you were younger, you were doing calendars and there were Nike ads that paid a lot of attention to your looks...
I definitely was focusing [too much] on getting attention in other ways than running. I've realized now that I want to be known for the runner I am, and that's important to me. So I've backed off on that. I don't have time to do these things. If you want to be a great professional runner, you really need to dedicate your life to this. You can't be traveling all around doing these things. They were fun experiences, but now it's time to really focus and enjoy the running.

Do you expect at the very least you'll be competing through 2004?
Oh definitely. No children for sure until after 2004. And I'll probably evaluate after 2004. I'll probably want to go another year or two, and then it's children. I'll probably always compete, though. I'll do masters.

Well… we're glad you're having fun again.
Yeah, I really am. I honestly can say I've never been happier in my life than I am right now. That's a good feeling when you can say that, and really mean it.

Peter Gambaccini is a New York-based freelance writer. He is a frequent contributor to New York Runner, Runner's World, MetroSports, The Village Voice, and other periodicals.

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