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

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She called home to Malibu and spoke with the doctor shortly before her semifinal race.

The news hit her hard.

Otis was dead.

A runner who prided herself on mind-set, on strategy, on tactics, Suzy Favor Hamilton suddenly was distracted and disturbed.

She told her husband, Mark, that Otis was gone.

"We both cried," she said.

So hard to believe.

Dead. Choked on a towel, of all things.

Out into the New Orleans steambath humidity she went. Two more good races and Hamilton could qualify for the Olympic Games, her lifelong goal.

She felt weak, though, and she knew why.

"When you cry, it drains you."

This was no time to be running on empty. Not for the most successful female runner in collegiate history. Not for one of the greatest female athletes ever seen in the Big Ten. Not for the dairy princess from Wisconsin who once celebrated "Suzy Favor Day" in Madison by proclamation of the mayor and whose life-sized (5-foot 3-inch) portrait adorns her high school fieldhouse in Stevens Point.

Not the last weekend in June.

Not with the Olympics at stake.

"I've worked 11 years for this," said Hamilton, who ran for a high school team when she was in junior high.

She wasn't the only one in Louisiana with something to lose. The same shoe company that sponsored "Dan and Dave," the advertised-to-death decathletes, also subsidizes Suzy, the middle-distance runner. Not Suzy and Regina (Jacobs), or Suzy and PattiSue (Plumer), her arch (no shoe pun intended) rivals. Suzy only.

The blonde. The one with the Barbie Doll figure and the baby-doll voice. The Melanie Griffith soundalike in the lavender two-piece. The athlete a male public-address announcer from the Penn Relays once introduced as "the lovely Suzy Favor." (Which irked Hamilton, who was right on the money in observing: "They wouldn't have said, 'The handsome Joe Smith.' ") A woman, nevertheless, whose photogenic quality and sweet disposition--except on the track, where she can be a ponytailed cutthroat--enhances her stature with the various promoters and paparazzi who stand in line to make her acquaintance.

"America's New Mile Queen," raved the cover of April's Track & Field News, alongside Hamilton's picture, months before the Olympic trials.

"A sports marketer's dream: she's blond, beautiful and smart. Oh, and she wins races," headlined American Way, the magazine of American Airlines.

"Rapidly becoming this country's most recognizable middle-distance runner," proclaimed Runner's World.

A quote from Plumer, a Stanford law school graduate and Hamilton's Olympic friend/foe in the 1,500 meters, in American Way was dead-on blunt: "Let's face it, she's not just pretty, she's the right kind of pretty. The blond hair, blue eyes. . . . It's the look Madison Avenue loves."

Hamilton's husband said Reebok and Nike engaged in an intense bidding war. "Finally, Nike said whatever Reebok offered, they would do more," he said.

Remember, this is someone who has never even been to an Olympics. This point is not lost on Plumer, who said: "She has gotten far more attention and money than almost all of us who have accomplished a lot more." Plumer placed 13th in the 1,500 four years ago at Seoul.

One Reebok official said there was an "aura" around Hamilton. Another estimated that missing out on Barcelona--as Dan O'Brien did--conceivably could have cost Hamilton something in the neighborhood of $2 million.

Her goal was to get there--any way she could. First, second or third place. Try to outrun Jacobs and Plumer, who had agendas of their own and occasionally resented the favored treatment and flashbulb spotlight of Hamilton. Try to outrun Mary Slaney, who had history behind her and a mission before her. Do this while traveling at speeds that, if not quite Roger Bannister's four-minute mile, would have contended for men's medals back in the chariots-of-fire age of the Roaring '20s.

Do this while thinking of Otis, to whom Hamilton was so attached.

Otis was her dog, a year-old chocolate Labrador.

"For Mark and I, our puppy was like our baby," she said.

The 1,500 meters can be tough enough without the sweltering heat. To someone from the Midwest, heat is something you get from a thermostat. To someone who weighs 105 pounds, a summertime sauna is not exactly a necessity. And to someone somewhat emotional, saddened and feeling wrung-out from sobbing, such conditions are hardly ideal, even though Barcelona is going to furnish exactly such a furnace.

Hamilton survived the semifinal. With her background, one might think she could cruise-control her way through such a preliminary, even with something tugging at her sleeve. Untrue. It was only a year earlier, at the world championships, that Hamilton had finished a stunning ninth out of 13 runners in her heat . Only eight of 38 entrants ran slower. And the perils of distraction? Where was Hamilton's concentration at the 1990 Goodwill Games, where she miscounted the laps and ran fourth, making her move much too late.

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.

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?"

Upon finding out that she could, Mark married Favor and brought her to Malibu, so he could study law at Pepperdine. The university gave his wife a position as an assistant coach, which was pretty interesting, Pepperdine having no track-and-field team. But people do things for Hamilton because they like her. The only downside is when a rival runner--an Olympian--discovers that a European promoter will extend an invitation only on the assurance that Suzy Hamilton also will be accepting. Or when opponents see TV cameras and photographers swarming Hamilton after she has been outrun, which had Plumer visibly rolling her eyeballs in disgust on national TV after the recent Olympic trials.

Hamilton goes with the flow. She doesn't object to being an object of attention and doesn't have a hard enough crust to discourage anyone if she did. Neither, though, does she encourage it. She is not looking to become the calendar girl of Olympic track.

"I don't mind the photo shoots," Hamilton, 23, said, "but I'm not really looking to be a model."

She is looking to be an Olympian. Maybe a two-time Olympian. Atlanta is on her 1996 appointment book. Hamilton's joke is that she intends to still be running when she is 80. But some of her opponents, in their 30s, have babies, and that, too, is in her plans. The loss of her dog left a void in that area. Some might be unable to relate, but that phone call to her veterinarian remained so much on Hamilton's mind at New Orleans that after the race, after a personal-best time of 4:04.53, after beating Slaney at the wire for third place, after fulfilling her fantasy of qualifying for the Olympics, it was the first thing she mentioned.

Plumer, who placed second, dedicated her race to Butch Reynolds, who had lost his own long battle at making the Olympics.

Hamilton dedicated her race to her dog.

Reebok is missing out on a monster opportunity, not turning "Suzy and PattiSue" into the new "Dave and Dan." Although she appears to be far more agitated by circumstances than by Hamilton herself, Plumer cites a carryover factor even into the actual competition, saying: "Suzy is a very high-contact athlete, and yet for some reason she is often painted as the victim. Everyone else is painted as the aggressor. It's just part of this whole image thing. She can do no wrong."

Can do no wrong.

That's what they said about that guy in the decathlon.

What Suzy Hamilton says is: "My birthday is Aug. 8, the day of the finals in Barcelona. I'd just like to run the race, take a shot at winning a medal, then come home and have some time off and get another puppy." Depending on how the race turns out, maybe it could be a golden retriever.

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.
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