“Everyone in the world should know about Peace, Love and Understanding.” —Courtney Brooke Hutton
By Brittni Hutton
Over the years, a lot of people have asked me this question: ‘Brittni, when did you first decide to go on this whole Olympic quest thing?’ The answer’s always been the same: I don’t know. For as long as I can remember, it’s just always been. Like my hair’s always been blond, my eyes brown, and I’ve always had kind of ugly feet.
But if you read my first post, you might remember that one of the goals in writing about my Olympic journey is to look back and try to figure out some of my shit. Maybe even learn how to deal with it, and maybe that helps me become a better runner. And while it’s been a pretty great trip so far, it’s also been painful, honestly. But I do think I’ve pin-pointed a moment in time when my Olympic odyssey became more than just a little girl’s fantasy. Be patient please, this post’s a little longer, takes a little more time to unwind, and gets kind of emotional. At least for me. Anyway, time to take a trip to my hometown of Milford, Michigan, the year’s 2004, and I’m still in eighth grade (with blond hair, brown eyes, and kind of ugly feet).
Ever hear of Milford, Michigan? Didn’t think so. Milford might well be the most perfect town on earth. First, Milford’s just beautiful. We have lakes, streams and dense forests of pine and spruce, and there’s a million miles of top-notch dirt to run on. For runners, that dirt’s like gold.
Milford has the sweetest little downtown you’ve ever seen, and the best butcher shop & bakery anywhere are in…where? Yup, Milford. And I’m pretty sure the 6,200 folks who live in Milford are the happiest people on earth. (Sorry Disneyland.) If they ever film a remake of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Milford could easily stand in for Bedford Falls.
I grew up in an older ranch-style house in Milford with my mom, Jayne, dad, Jeff, older sister, Courtney, and younger brother, Corbin. We didn’t have a ton of money, and our house was smallish, but we had a huge backyard. My dad built us this really great swing set with a monster tire swing, and me and my brother and sister spent hours on it. We had freedom to roam the safe neighborhood, on foot and bike, and we did, especially me and Corbin, exploring the forests that surrounded us. In so many ways, I had the perfect childhood.
My mom works at a salon in Milford’s sweet little downtown, and my dad used to have an auto parts store there, too. He also sold fireworks out of the back (illegally, but with the Milford Police’s wink of an eye) and we spent our Fourth of Julys at my aunt and uncle’s lake house lighting up the sky with my dad’s (illegally gotten) fireworks.
Even though we weren’t the richest people in town, we Huttons were a tight family. Me and my brother Corbin bonded over the sport of basketball. We both played AAU and were good. I was being scouted by Duke, Harvard, and other top schools. Corbin could dunk when he was just 13. That boy had hops.
But my older sister, Courtney, could not come close to dunking. She was a preemie baby, born weighing a measly two pounds, and she barely made it above five feet tall. But she was a talented-as-hell artist. In fact, if you walk around Milford’s little downtown today, you might find her art work on the torsos, arms, and legs (and private parts) of many a local Milfordian. She designed a lot of tattoos for her friends.
By eighth grade, I had committed my future wholeheartedly to playing in the WNBA and on the Olympic basketball team. (In the same way many middle schoolers had committed themselves to becoming rock stars, famous actresses, and astronauts, I know.) But as ridiculous as my middle-school dreams were, Courtney never doubted I’d reach them. She was so supportive and so believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. She was in the Brittni Olympic glory camp. Hell, she was the president and CEO of it.
But it wasn’t just me Courtney championed. She was the glue that held our family together. One time, no lie, when my parents were going through a rough patch, she told them she’d kill them both if they broke up. They didn’t. That was so Courtney.
After Courtney graduated high school in 2003, however, I worried about her, because she spent the next year doing kinda nothing. But then she got into this really great art school, and I was so proud, and she was so happy. I remember her driving around Milford in her little Geo with the retractable roof. It was a funny looking little thing, but it got her to and fro. And now it would get her to art school. At least that was the plan. Me the Olympics, Courtney art school. It was settled.
As perfect as Milford is, the winters there are brutally cold. Some say bitter cold, but to me bitter isn’t the right taste; it doesn’t do a Milford winter justice. And on one of the coldest of those Milford nights, in January of 2004, Courtney was driving to Fenton to babysit our cousins, hit black ice, lost control of her little Geo, and was thrown out of the retractable roof and across the road. She survived, but then a car hit her and that was that. We lost our Courtney. Our champion. Our glue.
It was a devastating loss. My mom’s nature is to turn inward, and she did. Corbin was just like her, so he followed suit. Me and my dad are more alike, and he tried, but life in our house pretty much died with my sister. For a long time, we lived together under one roof, but separate.
On my own, and in need of comfort, I took refuge in eating. Food became a substitute for compassion and love. It became a part of the grieving process. And that’s when I first starting binge eating (though not purging, not yet.) Sometimes I’d eat a whole gallon of ice cream or empty the fridge in one sitting.
You hear athletes call their food fuel, and I was fueling enough to run 10 marathons. But I wasn’t running any marathons, and I started adding pounds. And that meant I was slower running up and down the basketball court, and my race times diminished too. I grew a little pot belly and suffered guilt and shame. I felt like I was betraying Courtney, my biggest fan, so I threw myself into training even harder. When I couldn’t sleep at night, I’d get up and shoot free throws, 2am, 3am, winter, spring, summer, it didn’t matter, the repetition of it a kind of meditation, a way to lose myself, and a way of proving to Courtney that I wasn’t going to let her down.
But no matter how much I ran, shot, dribbled and stressed my body, the more I binged, the more pounds kept piling on. Eventually, there was only one way to achieve a balance of intake and output. That’s when I started my binge-purge cycles. No one knew about it. It was my secret, my shame.
The days leading up to Courtney’s funeral were horrible – a shit show – no one knowing what to do or say or how to act. We were all lost. And adding to the stress, a twisted coincidence: During her senior year of high school, Courtney (along with her classmates) was given an assignment. She had to design her own funeral. So we had in writing exactly what my sister wanted. Or said she wanted. What high schooler takes such an assignment seriously when they still believe they’re immortal? But it gave us direction, so we went with it.
So from the music playing (Fantasia) to the color of her casket (Light Golden Pink Rose), to her favorite flowers (roses), we obliged Courtney’s so-called wishes. We did everything down to the very last detail from that goddamn high school assignment.
One of Courtney’s wishes was that my mom, dad, me and Corbin leave something in her casket with her, something that spoke most of us. Since Courtney had been so supportive of my athletic pursuits, I chose my first ever MVP award I’d won in a basketball tournament. But I also slipped Courtney a note. In it, among other promises I made to her, I swore that I’d become an Olympian. That’s when my quest became real. A promise to keep to my biggest supporter. And I never forget a promise, no matter what the cost.
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I visit Milford every once in a while, my family’s still there, and we’re all doing pretty well these days, thank you for asking. That cute little downtown’s thriving, fireworks still get lit every Fourth of July, in fact Milford really hasn’t changed much at all. But for me it will never be a perfect little town anymore.