What's next for Shelby Houlihan?

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Will she stay in the sport?

Like everyone else, I was completely shocked when news of the Bowerman Track Club press conference leaked. Sitting at my desk on a Tuesday morning, my first thought was that Shelby would be missing the upcoming Trials through injury.

This would be a huge story. I was at the last USA National Championships in 2019, and got to witness Shelby’s wins in the 1,500m and 5,000m up close. An athlete of Shelby’s calibre not being at the Olympics is a big story, so I started to prepare a post for Instagram.

Then, it was just about waiting to hear what the injury was and maybe get a quote from a press release to give some more context. As time ticked by, and the press conference went on and on, it became apparent that this was no normal injury (TEMPO were not invited to sit in on the press conference). What followed, of course, is now well documented.

Houlihan announced that she had tested positive for Nandrolone, a prohibited substance, and had been sanctioned for 4 years.

Without posting the whole statement here, the defence for Houlihan is basically this - Houlihan ate from a food truck approximately 10 hours before a test in December 2020, and she believes that meal impacted her test results. Houlihan said she provided evidence to support her claims, including submitting to a hair test and a polygraph, but ultimately was still found guilty and had her appeal rejected. You can watch Houlihan’s full statement here.

Houlihan, along with her coaches Jerry Schumacher and Shalane Flanagan, are immensely well liked and respected within the global athletic community, and rightly so. They all released lengthy statements on their respective Instagram accounts. It’s always a shock when a doping violation is announced, but the character of these 3 individuals is why this one is so much more shocking.

Shalane especially commands respect, not just for her own stellar career but for her convictions. In 2017, after Galen Rupp won the Chicago Marathon (and Jordan Hasay finished 3rd in the women’s race), Shalane had this to say, “That program, the NOP (Nike Oregon Project), has been under investigation for the last two years.”

She also said, “As a fan of my own sport, it’s hard to have full excitement and faith when you don’t know all the facts yet. There’s still an investigation going on so it’s hard to truly and genuinely get excited about the performances that I’m watching.”

For context, back in 2017, Shalane was still training in Beaverton, and using the same facilities a lot of the time as Rupp and Jordan Hasay. So it says something that she felt strongly enough to make things real awkward the next time she saw them both.

Ultimately the coach of the Nike Oregon Project, Alberto Salazar, was banned from the sport in late 2019 for a period of 4 years for doping violations.

It’s important to note here that none of the athletes who were coached by Salazar tested positive.

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Since posting about the Houlihan news on Instagram, I have had at least 50 conversations with different people online and in person. And here’s my take -

It’s an extremely sad and sobering day for the sport. When all the attention should be on the incredible racing happening at the moment - NCAA Championships were on over the weekend, there are a series of great meets happening in Europe, and the USATF Olympic Trials start this weekend, our sport is instead attracting attention for doping violations.

I’m not passing judgment on Shelby or anyone at Bowerman Track Club - it’s not up to me to declare whether someone is guilty or innocent, and nor do I know enough about the testing protocols or appeals process to have a strong opinion. I’ve worked with BTC a number of times, and had Shelby and some of her teammates on our Running Things show last year. I’ve always admired Shelby as an athlete and had a fun time when we talked.

When I think about Shelby now, I don’t think of a ‘did she or didn’t she’ scenario. My first thought is about her future. What’s next for Shelby Houlihan? At the completion of her 4 year ban, in December 2024 or January 2025, she will be 32 years old and her best days on the track will have passed.

She has spoken before about having an interest in the marathon, and at 32 would be in the right age range to perform well. But how does she get there? How does she eat for the next 3.5 years? You have to assume her contract with Nike will lapse, and where does that leave her? A sponsor is unlikely to pay her to train when there is no prospect of a race day.

Would she stay fit and keep stacking mileage for the next 3.5 years without a pay cheque? It’s not impossible, hundreds of amateur runners perform at sub-elite and sometimes elite levels, but it’s a grind.

It’s incredibly sad to think about her future. It’s sad that because of one mistake (whichever side of the fence you’re on, it’s a mistake - either a bad meal choice or an ill-advised decision to do the wrong thing), the path of her life has changed forever.

If you spend too long reading message boards or Instagram comments, you inevitably come across people who live for the downfall - who are gleeful when news like this drops. But as a fan of the sport, and a fan of humanity in general, there are no winners today. There is no reason to feel anything but sadness when reflecting on the day. This is not a good day.

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