Citing depression that "goes way back to childhood," former Olympic runner and Madison-area resident Suzy Favor Hamilton confirmed Thursday that, until recently, she had lived a "double life" as a high-priced prostitute in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The news of Favor Hamilton's secret life was broken Thursday by the website The Smoking Gun.
In an email to the State Journal, the 44-year-old former University of Wisconsin middle-distance runner confirmed the story was largely true, although she disputed the suggestion in the original story that she saw clients during trips for various marathons.
"This is all very much related to my depression, and my psychologist is helping me understand and get a hold of it," she wrote.
The news rocked the running community, where Favor Hamilton occupies a prominent role. One longtime acquaintance called the admission "bizarre."
In a series of tweets Thursday, Favor Hamilton apologized to her fans.
"I was drawn to escorting in large part because it provided many coping mechanisms for me when I was going through a very challenging time with my marriage and my life," she wrote. "It provided an escape from a life that I was struggling in. It was a double life.
"I cannot emphasize enough how sorry I am to anyone I have hurt as a result of my actions and greatly appreciate the support from family and those closest to me. I fully intend to make amends and get back to being a good mother, wife, daughter, and friend."
According to The Smoking Gun, the three-time Olympian went by the name of "Kelly" and charged $600 an hour for services that included sexual acts.
Favor Hamilton and her husband, Mark, of Shorewood Hills, sell luxury homes in the Madison area. She also works as a motivational speaker and serves as a spokeswoman for a variety of groups, including the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association and the Disney running series. Locally, she helps run a pre-college program through the UW-Madison Department of Education for middle school-age students called "Movin' Minds" and often participates in charity events.
According to The Smoking Gun report, the former Olympian called the year-long episode "a huge mistake," although she emphasized she did not view herself as a victim. She said her husband was aware of the work and tried to get her to stop. "He wasn't supportive of this at all," she told the website.
'Too bizarre for words'
The news circulated quickly through the running community.
"It's almost too bizarre for words," said Tom Kaufman, head coach for boys track and cross country at Madison West High School.
He has known Favor Hamilton since her high school running days, when she competed for Stevens Point and he coached female distance runners at West. He also works part-time at Movin' Shoes, a Madison running store where Favor Hamilton has led female running groups.
"I'm stunned and saddened, really saddened," Kaufman said. "She's done great things for runners in our community, particularly women runners."
Larry Eder of Fort Atkinson is president of the Running Network, a group of 23 running magazines and websites and editor of the Run Blog Run site. He has known Favor Hamilton since she was a track and cross-country star at Stevens Point High School.
"Something has obviously gone wrong because she didn't need the money," he said. "I feel for her daughter and her husband."
But Eder said he was impressed that, when confronted with the truth, Favor Hamilton didn't avoid it.
"She took the hit. Not everybody does that in this day and age when everybody tends to blame everybody else," he said.
The news will reverberate well beyond Wisconsin because Favor Hamilton has been a national track icon for decades. She has continued to make appearances at running events such as the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships for high school runners.
"She was one of the most popular athletes of her era," he said. "High school boys fell in love with her and she was a great role model for young women. And she was a tremendous athlete."
Between 1988 and 1990, Favor was three times named the Big Ten Conference's female athlete of the year and won nine NCAA championships. The conference's female athlete of the year award is now called the Suzy Favor Award.
Runner has fallen before
This is not the first time Favor Hamilton has revealed a shocking secret. In 2008, she acknowledged to the State Journal that she intentionally fell during the 1,500-meter gold medal race in the 2000 Olympics when it became clear she would not win. Favor Hamilton had been considered by some to be a favorite to win the gold at the games in Sydney, Australia.
"With 200 yards to go, I hit empty on my gas tank," she told the newspaper. "At that point I started to have a panic attack. In my mind, I knew winning was the option, only winning could be a success."
With the finish line in sight, another runner passed her and she thought, "OK, silver." Then two more women passed and with them her chance at a medal.
"In fourth place I decided fourth was not good enough and I somehow needed to vanish," she said. "But how do you vanish when the whole world is watching?"
Thoughts of her family, a friend dying of cancer and her brother who had taken his own life the previous year went through her mind, she said.
"I was thinking about everyone, how happy they would be," Favor Hamilton said then. "And at that moment I had let them all down, so falling was the option. And I fell."
It's unclear how Favor Hamilton will pick herself up again this time and whether this latest admission could damage her lucrative career as a motivational speaker, commercial spokeswoman and role model for young people. Messages left with the UW-Madison School of Education, Disney and the Potato and Vegetable Growers Thursday were not immediately returned Thursday.
Favor Hamilton told her Twitter followers she had the "crazy" notion that her secret life would never come out.
"I realize I have made highly irrational choices and I take full responsibility for them," she wrote. "I am not a victim here and knew what I was doing."