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Favored Status : Marketing Focus on Hamilton's Looks Has Benefits, but It Doesn't Always Go Over With Her or Her Opponents

BARCELONA 1992 OLYMPICS: 16 Days to the Games.

July 09, 1992|MIKE DOWNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Runners don't only run with their legs. They run with their heads. Hamilton's specialty, particularly during her staggeringly successful four years at the University of Wisconsin, was to do whatever it took to win, no matter how unsportsmanlike it might be construed. An opponent and coach from Indiana howled long and loud after Favor--this was before she met and married Mark Hamilton, a Badger baseball pitcher and pre-law major--cut in front of Michelle Dekkers, abruptly slowed the race to a turtle's pace and hogged the road while the Hoosier runner was caught by Favor's teammates. The losers wanted the leader of the pack disqualified. Dekkers used the words dirty tactics and demanded an apology. Indiana's coach, Sam Bell, called such tactics "beneath her talent and beyond sportsmanship."

Said Favor of her adversary: "I guess she thinks I'm a little too mean when I run."

This was something she learned from Paul Tegen, her coach at Wisconsin, who is a strong believer in strategy over speed. Tegen virtually turned his runners into method actors. At practice, he bunched them into a tight Roller Derby-like pack and dared the trailing runner to pass. Or he organized a conga line and ordered the trailer to find a way by. He even played games of "tag," with rabbit runners attempting to avoid the outstretched hands of anyone in pursuit.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 10, 1992 Home Edition Sports Part C Page 6 Column 3 Sports Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Olympics--The women's track coach at the University of Wisconsin was misidentified in Wednesday's editions. His name is Peter Tegen.

Favor thought this made running more fun. Tegen had something else in mind, saying: "At Wisconsin, our runners aren't always the fastest, but they're never wimpy. Wimpy, I won't have."

Favor learned and ran fast.

She won an unheard-of nine NCAA championships. She became the first woman to win the same event (the 1,500) four times. She was the first woman to successfully "double" in the NCAA 800 and 1,500, also becoming the first to break the two-minute barrier in the 800 when she stormed past defending champion Meredith Rainey of Harvard. Of Favor, Rainey said: "As a competitor, she's fearless. That's the difference between her and someone who wins occasionally."

She even out-Jesse Owensed Jesse Owens. In conference finals, Favor won 18 individual races and two relays. Ohio State's Owens won eight. That is why she became the only athlete, male or female, to win back-to-back Jesse Owens Awards as the Big Ten's athlete of the year. That is why in Wisconsin, where college football and basketball programs are not exactly legendary, the name Suzy Favor is.

Around Stevens Point, in mid-state, about two hours west of Green Bay, she is pretty much Bart Starr in cleats. No such scenario ever entered her mind back when "Bug" Favor was 12 and tiny and being teased about the bug-eyed look given to her by a pair of huge eyeglasses. The only reason she started running was because her sisters had. Conrad Favor had been something of a jock--he boxed in the Navy--but mainly he did graphic art for an insurance firm. His wife, Rachel, was a nurse. They might not have influenced their daughters' hobby, but they supported it, and drove Suzy as far as Florida to compete.

Suzy's strategy back then?

Kid stuff.

"I used to pretend that I was a horse," she said.

When the ninth-grader was preparing to attend the three-year upper-level high school, the varsity coach, Mike Olson, recruited her for cross-country and track. Bug thought that was cool. Even cooler was walking around campus in a varsity letter-winner's jacket.

To run was to have fun. "I have seen so many people in this sport who don't seem happy," Hamilton said this week, calling from England, where she is about to compete in a meet at the Crystal Palace stadium outside London. "They take everything to such extremes. They don't smile, they don't eat. Some of them look like skeletons. They think if they ate, they would slow up. They're obsessed with it: thinner/faster, thinner/faster."

Hamilton ran second a lot at the beginning. She made an effort to be a good loser. The older she got, the less she lost. In college over one 51-race span, she lost twice. Yet she dreaded having the sport consume her. There was an innocence about Suzy Favor that everyone noticed. She was Hayley Mills Meets MacCaulay Culkin. A naive-and-nice combo. She drank Shirley Temples. She liked music by Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. She wore her boyfriend's baseball cap and studied ceramics in art class. Her grade-point average at graduation was 3.6, and her status as Wisconsin's golden girl was untarnished.

When Mark Hamilton met her, one of the reasons he investigated further was: "She can't be this nice, right?"

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