Except in the rarest and most extreme circumstances (think Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza) no one deserves to be defined by their worst moment.
So the news last week about Suzy Favor Hamilton shouldn't be allowed to define who she is. In fact, a case could be made that we shouldn't even know about it. After all, Favor Hamilton isn't a public official, isn't on the public payroll, and even her celebrity status is on the wane. Did this deserve front-page coverage? I don't think so.
I met Favor Hamilton a couple of times. Once she was giving a speech at an event to help raise money for the Transplant Games, a competition that was held in Madison that year for recipients of organ transplants who have gone on to lead active lives. Not only was she pitching in for a good cause, but she gave a riveting and frank speech in which she described how, as a kid, she literally ran away from problems going on in her home. Running was an escape that she turned into a way of life.
The other time I met her, she was also helping out in another good cause. It was the first Ride the Drive community biking event. We had no idea how it would go, so we tried to plan all kinds of special events to draw people. One event was "Run with Suzy Favor."
One problem was that we didn't have time to promote it properly. The other problem was that it took place at eight o'clock on a Sunday morning. I dutifully showed up, as did my friend Alder Mark Clear and one other out of shape guy. That was it.
I wouldn't have blamed her if she had stalked off, or at the very least showed signs of irritation. But she didn't. She was cheerful throughout. When I started whining about my knees as a precursor to explaining why I would be running like an old man, she would have none of it. Instead, she explained that bad knees are often just a sign of weak core muscles. She showed me some exercises to strengthen my core and, sure enough, after a few weeks my knees hurt much less.
Then she slogged through a mile-long run that to her must have seemed like a painfully slow stroll but nearly killed her three followers.
The Big Ten names an Athlete of the Year award after her and it should not withdraw that honor. Suzy Favor didn't cheat. She earned her victories. Moreover, the UW and the Big Ten capitalized on her star power for decades. For the school or the conference to abandon her now would say more about them than about Favor Hamilton.
Finally, let's contrast this with Lance Armstrong, who really does deserve to be defined by the worst thing he did. Armstrong not only cheated and then lied about it, but also aggressively went after anyone who tried to call him on it. He even went so far as to suggest that a team trainer who he made smuggle drugs was really a prostitute. Is it worse for someone to dabble in the world's oldest profession or to accuse an innocent woman of that in an effort to smear her and cover up his own gross misdeeds?
When Lance Armstrong appeared at a subsequent Ride the Drive, fifty thousand people showed up to ride with him. Contrast that with the three of us who joined Suzy Favor Hamilton.
But at the end of the day, despite her missteps, I still respect Favor Hamilton for her legitimate accomplishments, and for the kindness I saw her display. I can't say the same for Lance Armstrong.