By Ken Stone
Suzy Favor Hamilton is driving home from her Wednesday morning yoga class when I call. She’s hands-free and shame-free.
Still, I keep to my strategy. I ask about “beautiful downtown Manhattan Beach,” her home of two years. She brightly replies: “It’s fabulous. God, I love California.”
I convey “the absolute best” from Tracy Sundlun, the longtime marathon race executive. Hamilton says: “Ah, Tracy is awesome. … He’s just an amazing guy. I’ve known him forever.”Soon I ask the three-time Olympian’s reaction to Raevyn Rogers of Oregon breaking Hamilton’s 27-year-old collegiate record in the 800-meter run by a hundredth of a second recently.
“Records are made to be broken, aren’t they?” she says. “I’m used to having my records broken now. So … my brain goes like, wow! I wonder what this young woman is going to do in the future.”
My plan is working perfectly. Hamilton, 48, is happy and peppy. She’s relieving any worries about my triggering her stress levels amid bipolar disorder — what used to be called manic depression. Her brother, Dan, had it, committing suicide in 1999.
I’m connecting with Hamilton to write about her being the featured speaker Monday, May 15, at the Jewish Family Service of San Diego’s annual luncheon supporting mental health awareness. (For details, see this page.)
It’s been 4 1/2 years since The Smoking Gun outed her as Kelly (“U.S. Olympian’s Secret Life As Las Vegas Escort”) and two years since the publication of her book “Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness,” which the publisher cut from 500 pages to 295, leaving out details of her recovery from bipolar disorder.
So now she fills in those blanks by traveling the country and making paid speeches on her ongoing rehab. She addressed a big crowd near Chicago several weeks ago. She had at least five talks planned this month — and 15 this year.
“We have just another project we’re developing right now,” she says, referring to “Fast Girl” co-author Sarah Tomlinson. “I can’t talk about it yet. But it will be another avenue that will really show the world my story.”
I ask the obvious: So someone [in the film industry] has optioned your story?“Those [requests] have been rolling in for five years now,” she replies. “And I said no, no, no. Now I’m in the phase where: You know what — I realize that if I can get a big audience even bigger, just think how many more people we could educate.”
She emphasizes that a possible movie deal is not about the money — “it’s about spreading the word. And that only helps my speaking, which is something I love. It’s a passion and a purpose for me more than anything.”
Hamilton, mom of an 11-year-old tallest-in-her-class swim star in the fifth grade, has now been married to University of Wisconsin sweetheart Mark Hamilton for 26 years. They help Suzy fight the disease, which wasn’t diagnosed until after what she calls her “hypersexuality” episodes in Sin City.
“People don’t realize the degree of this illness and the sexual aspect,” she says. “I feel like I’m the pioneer to talk about this. And it’s been so incredible.”
She says half the people with bipolar display risk-taking sexuality like hers — when she aimed to be the highest rated call girl in Vegas.
Besides doing yoga, she’s treating her disease with Lamictal — pronouncing it La-MICK-tull.
She also takes Strattera for ADHD, saying: “I need that for my speaking, where I can keep track and keep my thoughts organized. Before that medication, it was hard to stay on track. If I had had it early on, I would have been SO much better in school.”
She says that after each appearance, she comes home to Mark and says: “Oh my God. That was my favorite!”
At the recent $250-a-seat National Alliance on Mental Illness gala, she met people who benefited from their program — “and that was really cool.”
She heard from people dealing with suicides in their families.
“Just to see them finding some good and trying to help other families was really powerful,” said Hamilton, who also auctioned off two pairs of her competition shoes for $2,000 a pair (Nike embroidered her name on the spiked shoes).
Through her talks — she’ll be in Kansas City twice this year as well as D.C. and many stops in California — she’ll stress how to deal with the disorder.“I think it’s really important to talk about the recovery. And my book ends, not talking about recovery,” she says, noting that she gets email and social media notes every day. (She says she answers every one — except the “trolls.”)
“It’s amazing how many stories I hear — very similar to mine — that are revolving around the hypersexuality, but they feel there’s nobody they can talk to.”
While warning people that she’s not a doctor, she says she can help people with recovery.
“They want to know my secret. … I tell them: There’s no secret. Life isn’t all perfect,” with everything getting better.
She’s a little apologetic about her 11,000-followers Instagram account, however.
“I just want them to realize that the pictures you see on Instagram are not always reality,” she says. “We’re taking pictures of our best moments, or we’re posing. So I have to make sure I tell them — things aren’t always great. And that’s just where we need support more than anything.”
But her sense of humor shines through — with one photo showing Hamilton gazing up at a sign that says “NUDE SUNBATHING PROHIBITED” just above a smaller one that says “NO ANIMALS permitted on the beach or in the ocean.”
Her comment: “Dammit! No animals?”
Becoming a professional speaker also lends itself to her recovery. She says she can’t hack a 9-to-5 job.
“I’m definitely more relaxed,” she says. “My thinking is more clear.” And the compulsiveness associated with bipolar is under better control.
“Let’s say I walked by that store — ‘Oh, I like that dress.’ I would just go in and buy it. Now with this drug … a minute later: ‘I don’t need that dress,’” she says.
But even with Olympians like fellow distance star Kara Goucher posting supportive comments on Instagram, Hamilton hasn’t won over everyone.
A segment of the “clean-cut,” Type-A running world is so concerned about image and “looking good for their fans” that Hamilton feels shunned by them.
“So I will always deal with that stigma of the sex, of the mental health,” she says. “That’s unfortunate because people are still stigmatizing it with little gestures …. But I understand it. Maybe they don’t completely understand it, or their fans don’t understand it, and they don’t want to lose their fans. So it’s tough.”
But her parents came around — although “they don’t completely understand.”
“They were just out here visiting, so we’re doing really well. They love me so much,” she says.
Through psychotherapy, she’s learned to accept the fact that her behavior was “too painful” for some, and “you just have to accept that.”
“I was feeling a lot of shame, and I wouldn’t forgive myself. And that was a huge component of me getting healthy was to forgive myself,” she says.
It helped when her husband read former UCLA Professor Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind.” Jamison suffered from bipolar and laid out the facts.
“He read that book and said, ‘Oh my God. That’s my wife. I get it. I get this illness.’ That was the moment he decided that he was focusing on the disease vs. the behaviors.”
If other spouses and family members can educate themselves, she says, it would save lives, marriages and relationships.
Until recently, however, Hamilton had a final taboo.
“I always hate talking politics,” she says.
But when I invited her to comment on White House and Republican efforts to slash mental health research funding, she jumped right in.
“You know, right now we need more funding,” she said before Thursday’s House repeal of Obamacare. “And the fact that they want to take away funding is devastating. Basically what they’re doing is taking away lives.”
Thus her work speaking at fundraisers.
“Like the one in Chicago I just did. They raised a ton of money. Which was awesome,” she said. “Doing more of these fundraisers is going to be crucial for our health and for supporting others. … So many people are living that undiagnosed life and basically losing everything.”
She vowed: “I’ll always be an activist for this. And do whatever I can, and go to marches, and get out there and show my face.”
Hamilton notes how children are being screened for breast cancer, and asserts: “For mental illness, early detection is also crucial. We have to start really in the schools if we really want to make a difference.”
That brought me to Kylie, Hamilton’s daughter and swim star (at the moment; she’s asked her mom for running tips to become a faster soccer player).
If both parents have bipolar, she says, the chances of a child having it are 50 percent. With one bipolar parent, it’s 10 percent.
“So Kylie has already asked me … ‘Will I get this, Mom?’ I’ve already told her — you know, you have nothing to worry about because if you did get this — you have a small chance — the great thing is your parents know all the signs and symptoms to watch out for. So you’re going to be in great hands. We’re going to take care of this.
“And we’re going to help you learn how to cope with it in healthy ways vs. unhealthy ways your mother was coping with it. That just gives her a comfort zone inside.”
Fortunately, Kylie has never been teased at school about her mom’s past.
Kylie “completely understands my story,” Hamilton says. “It’s not so bizarre to her. She gets it.”
Many neighborhood parents know her story as well.
“At first they don’t always know how to approach me,” she says. “But I think once they meet me, they’re like … ‘Oh my gosh — she’s healthy.’”
She could be healthier, though. Late this month, Hamilton will undergo outpatient work to repair meniscus in her left knee.
“Sounds like a pretty easy surgery, where just for a couple days they don’t want you to put weight on it,” she says. “And then you’re biking right away. And in four weeks I can be running.”
In 15 months, Hamilton turns 50. That’s the entry age for Senior Olympics, and she “definitely would” revive her track career.“Everybody says this knee surgery is amazing and will bring my leg back,” she says. “I would be interested in the half or the mile” — her former events (as the 800 and 1500 meters).
But she adds: “I’m not this Olympic runner that people assume.” At the January 2016 Carlsbad Half Marathon, she clocked 1 hour, 51 minutes, 26 seconds. “I don’t like to feel much pain anymore. I like to run to enjoy it.”
Is she ready to deal with the attention?
“I wouldn’t really announce it that I was going,” she says. “I would just kind of show up. I want to fit in, but if I’m getting attention for being there, I would really want to focus on the mental illness and use it as an educational tool of being there.”
She said she turned down an invitation to be part of a 4×800 relay team attempting a world age-group record.
“It would be a 70-second [per] lap for an 800. I could do that if I’m healthy. I could train to do that. So maybe next year is a possibility.”
Meet organizers would know about her presence, of course, “but I wouldn’t make it a big deal,” she says. “I would just like to go in, do it, do my passion. I think it would be so much fun.”
The organizer of the San Diego talk isn’t shy about promoting Hamilton’s appearance.
Mimi Lee of University City heads the charity’s Behavioral Health Committee, whose annual luncheon attracts about 250 people a year.
Last year’s speaker was William C. Moyers, son of TV’s Bill Moyers, whose book “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption” talked about his battle with drugs and alcohol. Over the years, the luncheon has heard from speakers with early onset Alzheimer’s, obsessive-compulsive behavior and schizophrenia. among other afflictions.
“I happened to turn on ’20/20′ one night,” says Lee, where ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas spoke with Hamilton on her secret life and struggle. “So it just really kind of piqued my interest and went along very well with the behavioral health program that we have.”
Lee contacted Hamilton via her website and won committee approval for the invitation.
“It’s been an extremely successful education and outreach event every year,” Lee said. “A number of people will say: Who will be the speaker next year?”
She admits “quite a bit of interest” has been generated “because of who she is” and the host, Hyatt Regency La Jolla, will “be able to expand the ballroom to accommodate our needs.” (Hamilton will take questions and sign copies of her book, which will be for sale.)
Lee, a retired learning disabilities specialist who launched the disabled student services at Grossmont College, says she hopes audience members come away with the feeling “that this is something that’s very real, that it is something that there certainly is help available, and it is OK to talk about it.”
“People with these behavioral health issues can live very full, productive lives like the rest of us,” she says. “They have similar needs to everyone.”
Hamilton was last in La Jolla about two months ago — for a soccer tournament Kylie was in. The former Badgers track star also attended the 2015 Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium, where Wisconsin came from behind to beat USC 23-21.
Her life now includes art — mosaics and painting, even tie-dye shirt making with Kylie — and hiking local hills and (soon) mountains. Also roller-blading, skateboarding and surfing.
After moving 11 times in 26 years, she’s happy to be a “California girl” in Manhattan Beach, she says.
And she’s hoping to help San Diego luncheoners with bipolar “forgive themselves and not feel shame.”
At her Chicago talk, audience members said they were living or dealing with Hamilton’s story “right now.”
“They know they can tell me, which is so great — because I place no judgment on anybody, and we need more of that (attitude),” she says. “We need to get rid of judgment in our lives so people can speak up and know that they aren’t alone.”
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