The Ultimate Honor
June 18, 2007
Suzy Favor Hamilton knew she wanted to be a runner ever since she was a fifth-grader.
At an elementary track meet in Stevens Point, Wis., the future most-decorated female athlete in Big Ten history did something that remains just as important to her as any award she's ever won.
She beat all the boys.
"I remember looking in the stands and seeing all my fifth- and sixth-grade peers chanting my name," she said. "That was the moment it hit me that this is what I want to do - I want to run. That was the moment I decided to be a runner."
That decision turned out to be a pretty good one.
As a high-schooler, Favor Hamilton won 11 state titles and was one of the most heavily recruited athletes in the country. When it came time to pick a college, Favor Hamilton made another good decision as she resisted tempting offers from warm-weather schools. Instead she chose to stay in-state to attend the University of Wisconsin, where she was quickly drawn in by then-head coach Peter Tegen.
"I was being recruited all over the country, and I actually wanted to go somewhere warm," she said. "I was really interested in California, mainly because of the warm weather, but after coming to Wisconsin and meeting the coaches and the team, I immediately thought, `This is where I need to be.'
"I look back on that, and it was such a critical time in my life. If I would've gone somewhere else, I wouldn't have had the success I did. It's one of those points in my life that I absolutely know I made the right decision."
At Wisconsin, Favor Hamilton had one of the most successful careers of any athlete in any sport in collegiate history.
As a freshman, she set the Big Ten Indoor Championships record in the 1,000-yard run, and then later set the conference's outdoor record in the 1,500 meters, clocking in at 4:10.93 - a performance that remains the Big Ten's best time by over five seconds. The 1987 indoor season also saw Favor Hamilton win the first of her nine NCAA individual titles when she took gold in the one-mile run. A couple months later, in the outdoor season, she won the first of her four-consecutive NCAA Championships in the 1,500 meters.
During her sophomore season, Favor Hamilton won one Big Ten indoor championship and two conference outdoor titles before winning her second consecutive NCAA gold medal in the 1,500 meters. For her accomplishments, she took home the Big Ten Female Athlete of the Year award - the first of three she would win in her career before becoming its namesake.
As a junior, Favor Hamilton took home four combined indoor and outdoor conference titles and two NCAA crowns, helping her to her second Big Ten Female Athlete of the Year distinction. She remains the only athlete to have won the award on multiple occasions.
"To be able to come away from my career and be able to say that I was the only person in the world to do this is pretty overwhelming and incredible," she said.
Favor Hamilton enjoyed her most successful collegiate season in her senior year, where she earned five individual conference crowns, helping the Badgers to Big Ten Championships in indoor and outdoor track. The senior also earned four combined national titles and set an NCAA Outdoor Championships record in the 800 meters.
In all, Favor Hamilton won 23 individual conference titles, holds three Big Ten Championships records, two NCAA Championships record, and reached All-America status 14 times.
In 1992, when the conference celebrated the 10th anniversary of women's Big Ten Championships, it named the Female Athlete of the Year award fittingly after its only three-time winner.
"Sometimes I still kind of pinch myself and I can't believe it's really true," she said. "When I was told they were changing the award to my name, I was like, `Really?' I couldn't believe that the award was going to be in my name. It's one of the best accomplishments I've had in my career."
And that certainly says a lot, especially considering that her career spans even more than just her days as a collegiate runner.
Favor Hamilton is a three-time Olympian with seven national championships to her name and has posted numerous top world rankings as a runner.
One of the country's most celebrated female runners, she has found success off the track as well.
Now an employee of the University of Wisconsin, Favor Hamilton works for Badger Sports Properties where she sells others on the school that did so much for her.
"It's the easiest sell in the world," she said. "Everyone's passionate about the Badgers, and it's not just people in Wisconsin. A lot of Badger alums are buying hospitality and doing things for their companies, and it's especially easy with the Badgers doing so well in all the different sports programs."
For her, the job is the perfect opportunity for Favor Hamilton to give a little something back to the school that jump-started her illustrious career.
"It's been an incredible job to work for the school I'm so passionate about," she said. "The school gave me so much, and now I can finally give back."
Favor Hamilton has also made a living out of projecting her love for running onto budding athletes, whether it is through print or in person.
In 2004, she co-authored a book called Fast Track, which is dedicated to runners' nutrition and fitness. She also sponsors a camp each summer in Green Bay, Wis., where she not only helps high school girls become better runners, but also talks with them about other issues surrounding young athletes.
"I've always had people ask me, `Are you going to coach?'" she said. "So many people want me to coach, and I love to motivate young kids because that's something I'm passionate about, but I didn't want to go the coaching avenue."
With a husband and a 20-month-old daughter at home, Favor Hamilton was hesitant to make the time commitment that coaching required, but found other ways to remain in the running community.
"I realized I can still coach in different ways, and writing the book was a way for me to coach, educate and motivate young kids," she said. "I also started a running camp, which is at the end of July and the start of August, and I have 100 campers come and we just talk about issues that aren't talked about a lot in high school, like eating disorders, training, motivation, having fun and enjoying running and seeing how it can help you in overall life. It's kind of like a big sleepover with me and 100 girls, and they see that they're just like me and I'm just like them."
When Favor Hamilton talks to young athletes about the ways in which running can help them become better people, she truly speaks from experience.
"My sports have totally shaped me for the working world," Favor Hamilton said. "Being a runner and having to have the work ethic that is required to be a professional athlete and the sacrifices you have to make totally prepared me for the working world. When I have days that are tough, I just think to myself, `I've been in the Olympics - that was a pretty tough day, too.' It's all about perspective. You have to live every day to the fullest, work hard every day, and I can only do what I can only do - that was something I said to myself a lot in running. You can't control people around you, you can only control yourself."
Favor Hamilton also received valuable lessons in time management during her days as a student-athlete when she worked to find a balance between athletics, academics and fun.
"It was incredibly tough being an athlete, keeping the grades up and trying to have some form of a social life," she said. "But, I found a niche and a schedule and I kept myself on task. It wasn't easy. It was hard to get good grades and to run well, but it was a growing experience that a lot of young people go through, and you see that you can do all these things, but it's not easy, and that prepares you for life because life isn't easy."
For Favor Hamilton, the award that bears her moniker is a lasting tribute to the hard work she put in as a student-athlete at Wisconsin.
"Having the award named after me is something that came about from working really hard," she said. "It's touched my life and it will always be there. I'll be able to show Kylie, my daughter, that this was named after her mom. I just can't thank the people enough who decided to do this for me. This has changed my life and really touched me and affected me in such a positive way."
Favor Hamilton hopes that those who win the award, which will be given again to the conference's top female athlete this week, realize how special the honor is.
"Everyone who wins this award has done amazing, wonderful things, and they should truly be applauded," she said. "To get this award, you have to have achieved incredible things and you have to be an incredible athlete and an incredible person. I hope the winners realize how special they are and never take it for granted."
As an athlete, mother and a mentor to hundreds of young runners, Favor Hamilton has continued to exemplify what it means to be the Big Ten's top female athlete even in the years following her last collegiate race.
But all that may have never happened if she hadn't beaten all the boys in one of her first.