The ascent of Shelby Houlihan
Titles on titles for the Iowa native have led to big expectations for 2019 and beyond
There’s a reason blog posts about how many calories Michael Phelps eats are still routinely clicked on; why Twitter goes into a frenzy over Serena smashing her racquet during a match; and why people devour athlete autobiographies, scouring the pages to find out what kind of weird stuff — outside of hard work and skill — took them to the top.
That reason is obvious: the lives of elite athletes are much, much different to yours and mine. Physical attributes may be the most apparent — presumably you and I are sluggish and soft where the athlete you are currently building in your mind is chiseled and coiled like a spring. But where the chasm between athlete and pedestrian is the greatest, and I hope this doesn’t sound too simple, is in the way their brain is wired.
Enter Shelby Houlihan. I am sitting across from her in Beaverton, Ore., in a Starbucks spitting distance from the Nike Campus. We’re talking about her 2018 track season when Shelby submits the first piece of evidence for the case of what makes her tick.
At the conclusion of the 2018 season, Shelby’s team, the Bowerman Track Club, had their end of the year banquet. At the banquet, they hand out a series of team awards. Shelby, fresh off what many track and field talking heads called her “breakout season,” took home some coveted hardware--I failed to ask which one it was, so let’s just assume it was “Fastest 2018.” This particular award was presented by the man behind the BTC curtain himself, Jerry Schumacher. He started his speech with “she almost had a perfect year. It wasn’t quite what we wanted, but it was pretty good…”
She laughed as she said her teammates—assorted gold medalists, American Record Holders, and World Major Marathon winners, among others—kind of rolled their eyes at their coach and gave him a collective “you gotta be kidding me.”
“But I totally agreed with him!” says Houlihan. “It was almost perfect.”
Almost perfect. It’s a funny choice of words. Especially considering that between April and September of 2018 she lowered her PR in the 1500 meter and 5000 meter six-seconds and 26-seconds, respectively — the latter breaking the American Record by more than 4-seconds. She doubled in the 1,500 meter and 5,000 meter at the USATF Outdoor Championships, notching her 6th and 7th US titles, a number that already needs correcting as she added two more titles earlier this year. And of the nine times she stepped on the line, she walked away victorious seven.
The two losses she took were the last two races of the season. At the Diamond League final in Brussels she closed hard but couldn’t quite reel in Great Britain’s Laura Muir. A week later in Ostrava, she lost to Kenya’s Winny Chebet in a slow, tactical affair. While a 2nd place finish at a Diamond League race may sound impressive, Shelby has different standards for herself. And if we’re looking for a pattern of behavior, we can take it all the way back to high school.
Growing up in the Midwest, the Iowa native made a habit of taking her licks early on until finally rising to the occasion. It’s how she went from getting her “butt kicked by other high school phenoms,” to eventual Iowa Gatorade Athlete of the Year for both track and cross country. The cycle started again when she matriculated to Arizona State University.
“Coming out of high school in Iowa, I was used to winning a lot,” she said. “So when I got to ASU, it was hard to go into these cross country races and get like 30th or 40th.”
Of course it didn’t last long--not that anyone was really worried about that. When Louie Quintana, former head track and cross country coach at ASU, recruited Shelby out of high school, he knew almost immediately what kind of athlete he was getting. I asked him when he knew Shelby was a different type of talent, “honestly, during the recruiting process.”
“We knew pretty early of her potential,” he said. “You watch her biomechanics, her mindset. She was a total package...She loved to run, that’s something that got lost on a lot of people that recruited her. There was a commitment to mixing in speed development and growing her aerobically. It was a patient approach – a lot of holding back.”
“The key was to not mess her up,” Quintana added. And it worked.
“Coming out of high school in Iowa, I was used to winning a lot.”
“So when I got to ASU, it was hard to go into these cross country races and get like 30th or 40th.”
By the time she graduated in 2015 she was a 12-time All American, an NCAA Champion, and held school records in the 800 meter, 1,500 meter, and 3,000 meter. Some of her current BTC teammates were also some of her former NCAA competition. Elise Cranny in particular remembers what it was like going up against Shelby in college.
“I raced against her my freshman year,” she said. “And the first word that comes to mind was badass. She ran to win. She wouldn’t sit and wait around. She exuded this confidence. You just knew she was going to win.”
This confidence was on full display her senior year. Quintana recalled the DMR at the 2015 Drake Relays in particular. Springtime in the midwest can be unpredictable, but errs on the side of miserable. In 2015 it was cold and rainy and Shelby was anchoring the relay with the mile. “We were not running well,” said Quintana. “Probably 100-meters back, in 12th of 15 teams.” Shelby proceeded to split a 4:28 mile, and brought her team within 0.1 seconds of the win.
“She ran the whole field down. In those conditions, it was incredible,” Quintana said. “[OSU] had enough to hold Shelby off, but everyone was paying attention.”
Shelby’s ascension from the collegiate ranks to the starting line of world class races didn’t take long. Though only two months removed from her 26th birthday, she’s already shaken the shock and awe of running against the world’s best from her system; and just a few years into her professional career, Shelby is no longer happy to merely be on the starting line.
In her first year as a professional, she ran herself into the Olympic final of the 5,000 meter. A year later, she was on the line in the same final at the 2017 World Championships. Things, however, didn’t go as planned.
“To just make it was one of the highlights of my career,” she says. “But when we got there I was just kind of like ‘oh my God.’ I told myself I was trying to go for a medal, but I wasn’t really trying to go for a medal. I give props to the people that can go to the Olympics for the first time and medal. But I was terrified.”
Her days of being terrified were numbered.
“I kind of just let myself feel what I was feeling,” she said. “Then you pick yourself up and say ‘okay I don’t want to feel this way. What can I do to prevent this from happening again?’”
“To just make it was one of the highlights of my career.”
“But when we got there I was just kind of like ‘oh my God.’ I told myself I was trying to go for a medal, but I wasn’t really trying to go for a medal...I was terrified.”
2018, is obviously why I’m writing this article. This is where the switch flipped. I was at the finish line at the Pre Classic and again at the USATF Outdoor Championships. In those races she showed the world a clean pair of heels, taking victories over a laundry list of world class talent in a fashion that can only be described as terror-inducing. Pumping down the homestretch, eyes only for line, she’d hit a point where, as Elise Cranny put it “you just knew she was going to win.”
For people in the know, however, the transformation of Shelby from Olympian-next-door, to the heir apparent for the 1,500 meter and 5,000 meter crown didn’t come as a surprise. At the Nike Campus, I asked 2017 World Bronze Medalist Amy Cragg what everyone within Bowerman Track Club thought about Shelby’s season.
“The whole team was collectively holding their breath,” says Cragg. “Because they had seen her do incredible things, they had seen her grow. We saw it on a daily basis but then it’s sometimes different when you’re going out there and showing the world. And she did it last year.”
I follow up by asking if she thought Shelby had a ceiling. Cragg gave me a sidelong glance before saying “well, she was ranked number one in the world last year.”
Inside the Nike Sports Center, Shelby is watching Game of Thrones on an iPad while easing into an hour on a Boost treadmill. Coming off her two mile victory at the 2019 USATF Indoor Championships, she’s nursing a bit of a bum foot that has required her to fill her days with light jogging and heavy cross training. If there’s any sense of urgency to get back to running full time, it seems subdued. With the schedule of the 2019 season being longer than usual due to the Doha World Championships falling between September and October rather than early August, Shelby has some breathing room.
“I’m trying to treat it like every other year,” she says. “After last year I was all fired up like ‘yeah I’m going for a medal!’ and I carried that fire with me through the fall and all of the winter. But I’m trying not to think about it too much. It’s still a long way away.”
When it comes to non-championship years (like 2018), athletes are allowed a certain amount of freedom. Caution is thrown to the wind as the pressure of making teams and earning medals takes a backseat to running fast and building confidence. But with Doha 2019 and Tokyo 2020 now clearly in the crosshairs, the specter of success and career-defining performances can loom large for some.
At this point in the season, a certain level of relaxation has to permeate Shelby’s life. She’s frank about what the most difficult part of her job is: staying mentally dialed in for months at a time. “My biggest obstacle is that I get to the last month of track season and I’m burnt out. I just want to go home. The mental side is more draining to me than anything else.”
Between running, strength training, and racing, Shelby knows that there’s plenty of time left before 2019 gets interesting. It’s a patience that I find impressive. Especially from an athlete that seems poised to have another breakthrough season on the world stage. Between rounds of medicine ball exercises, she preaches how this restraint has paid dividends throughout her career.
“I’ve been very patient with my training. I knew at some point years down the road it would all come together, I knew it would start to click,” she says. “I guess in a way I expected it, I just didn’t know it was going to be 2018. I feel a little more prepared going into this year. I guess technically last year was the first year I was really competitive at the world level.”
When I ask her about her goals, she is matter of fact: “I want a medal. I want that very badly.” With that out of the way, she begins to rattle off a 2019 to do list: double again at USAs in the 1500m and 5000m, break the American Record in the 1500m, break 2:00 in the 800m. Beyond that, she has her sights set on a gold medal in 2020.
“The whole team was collectively holding their breath.”
“Because they had seen her do incredible things, they had seen her grow. We saw it on a daily basis but then it’s sometimes different when you’re going out there and showing the world. And she did it last year.”
There’s an ease in the way she talks about big goals. It strikes me that this is not the first time she has said these things out loud. And here’s where an athlete’s mentality, the IT FACTOR if you will, shines through again. For a lot of people it can be difficult to declare what they want to eat for lunch tomorrow. But within Shelby there is a deep, inherent belief that big, scary sounding things are within reach.
“Maybe two years ago even, people would think ‘okay yeah you’re full of shit.’ And maybe people still are. I guess that would definitely not have been something I would have said out loud back then, because it sounds kind of insane. But I feel more comfortable saying it at this point because I feel like I am proving myself a little bit, and maybe people won’t think it’s so crazy.”
Talking to the people in Shelby’s corner, there’s no one I encountered that thinks we’ve seen the limit of Shelby Houlihan. And sure, the polite way to answer a question about whether we’ve seen someone’s ceiling is a shake of the head and a quick “of course not.” But everytime the question left my lips, I could feel the room turn. For the people that have rubbed elbows with her, Shelby’s success feels inevitable.
“Growing up, I wanted to go to the Olympics. I wanted to set World Records and set American Records. So those things have always been in the back of my mind. Those are the things that I’m working for,” she says. “I believe that I’m capable of doing that. And that’s half the battle, just believing in yourself.”