Shelby Houlihan ready to chase Olympic gold
When effort intersects with talent, the results can be spectacular.
Enter the world of Shelby Houlihan, who at age 26 is on the precipice of unprecedented success among female distance runners in the United States.
Mary Decker Slaney, Joan Benoit Samuelson and Shalane Flanagan are probably the biggest names in women's distance running history in this country. The next great star could be Houlihan, the American record-holder at 1,500 and 5,000 meters and the brightest light in a cavalcade of them with Nike's Bowerman Track Club. She is the two-time defending national champion at 1,500 and three-time defending champ at 5,000.
"Shelby is fantastic," said Jerry Schumacher, Houlihan's coach and the founder of the BTC in 2008. "She is extremely motivated and driven. She is a great competitor. You're going to get the best she's got on any given day. The job for us as coaches is to make sure she is prepared and ready; she'll do the rest."
Houlihan hasn't yet made a major impact on the international racing scene, but she's getting there. The 5-3, 115-pound Sioux City, Iowa, native set an American record of 3 minutes, 54.99 seconds in placing fourth in the 1,500 at the world championships in Qatar in October. That result left her prideful for the record but disappointed that she came so close to a medal.
"Bittersweet," Houlihan said last week during an interview after a training session at the track at Nike World Headquarters. "I'm glad I was able to get the American record. That was one of my goals this year. But to walk away without a medal, after convincing myself the previous two months that I could do it — it was definitely hard."
That may be coming. Americans have not had much success breaking African domination in the distance races at the Olympic Games over the last half-century. The only U.S. distance runners to earn medals on the track since 1968 have been Kim Gallagher (silver in the 800 in 1984, bronze in '88), Jenny Simpson (bronze in the 1,500 in 2016) and Flanagan (bronze in the 10,000 in 2008). Houlihan hopes she'll be the first one to break through to stand highest on the medal stand since Madeline Manning won gold at Mexico City.
"I'm very hungry for a medal," Houlihan said. "I want an Olympic gold medal so bad. I'm going to do everything I can, and work as hard as I can, to get to that point."
Houlihan grew up the third of seven children to Bob Houlihan, a certified public accountant, and Connie, a world-class marathoner. Older sister Shayla — now a track and cross country coach at California — was a national-caliber steeplechaser.
"I learned how to love running from them," Shelby said.
As a youngster, Houlihan overcame a serious medical condition. She was born with a rare inherited blood disorder that, for years, required periodic blood transfusions. At age 8, she had her spleen and gallbladder removed.
"You have a 50-50 chance of passing the blood disorder on," Houlihan said. "I was the only one of our seven kids to get it. I always joke that I was the chosen one.
"I was constantly anemic until I was 8. I remember being on the ground in a fetal position, waiting for it to pass. After the surgery, I haven't had anything to deal with health-wise. Having that adversity, having to spend every few months in the hospital getting transfusions — it made me a tougher person and a tougher runner."
Houlihan burst into prominance as a senior in high school, when she won the state championship in cross country and won the 400, 800 and 1,500 at state in track and field. She continued to grow during her four years at Arizona State, where she won a Pac-12 cross-country title, three conference 1,500s and two 5,000s, was a 12-time All-American and earned the NCAA 1,500 title in 2014.
The next year, she joined Schumacher in Portland after considering a couple of other running groups as well as the possibility of staying in Arizona to train on her own.
"I wasn't sure how I was going to react to being in a group of women who were better than me," Houlihan said. "I knew how to be a collegiate runner, but I didn't know how to be a professional runner. What better way to learn than by surrounding yourself with the best professionals? That's why I chose Jerry.
"It was the best decision, for sure. I've loved every second of it. Being able to be in a group where everybody is pushing each other every day is something really special. It has catapulted me to a new level. I've learned how to be a professional athlete, to eat the right things, do the right things, all the little things as well as grinding out workouts. I wouldn't have done some of the things that I've done if I wouldn't have had the teammates that I've had."
It didn't take Houlihan long to blossom. At the 2016 Olympic trials — with members of her immediate and extended family (cleverly called "Houlifans") in the Hayward Field stands — she made the U.S. team by finishing second in the 5,000. At 23, she would go on to make the finals at Rio de Janeiro, placing 11th in 15:08.89.
"I was just really excited to have made the Olympic team," Houlihan said. "That moment meant a lot to me. When I crossed the line (in Eugene), I burst into tears. It was a lifelong dream. For everything to come together on that day was overwhelming for me — one of the best moments.
"I had used all my energy just trying to get on the team. When we went to Rio, I was terrified, actually. I felt in over my head. I didn't know if I could compete with these women. (The best of them) had a PR that was a minute faster than mine was."
Houlihan was the only American to make the 5,000 final.
"To make the final was a big goal for me," she said. "I did as well as I could have. Eleventh wasn't exactly what I wanted, but I learned a lot from it."
In 2017, Houlihan won her first national title, in the 5,000. The next two years, she doubled at nationals, winning both the 1,500 and the 5K.
"When Shelby joined us in the fall of 2015, she had great speed and turnover, but she was still really young and underdeveloped in the aerobic end of things," Schumacher said. "We took her in as more of a distance runner with the intention of revisiting the faster stuff when she was ready for it. In 2018, we brought her back to the 1,500. By then, she had so much more strength to accompany that natural gift of speed she had."
The 2018 season, in Houlihan's words, was "my breakout year." After placing fourth in the 1,500 and fifth in the 3,000 at the World Indoors in Birmingham, England, she started her outdoor season by winning her first Diamond League race in her first sub-four-minute clocking (3:59.06) at the Prefontaine Classic.
Later in the year, Houlihan set the American record in the 5,000 in Heusden, Belgium, in 14:34.45, bettering the old mark by 4.5 seconds and taking nearly 26 seconds off her personal record. She was undefeated for the year outdoors before finishing second in her final two races. Houlihan was honored with the Jackie Joyner Kersee Award as the country's outstanding female track and field athlete.
"I thought I could win 'Pre,' but I wasn't totally expecting it," Houlihan said. "I gained confidence from that race and solidified the belief that I deserved to be here, that I can compete with these women (on the international stage)."
Houlihan began 2019 by winning her first national cross-country title in February in Tallahassee, Florida, then winning the 2-mile crown at the U.S. Indoors in New York City. After successfully defending her U.S. title in the 1,500 and 5,000 close to home in Des Moines, Iowa, she finished fourth at the world championships in the 1,500, which leaves her for plenty of motivation as she begins to prepare for the 2020 Olympic Games.
"I do a good job of staying in the moment," Houlihan said. "Right now, I'm in offseason and trying not to think too much about Tokyo, but I can feel myself starting to think about it a little more. I know once we get the ball rolling, that's all I'm going to be focusing on."
After more than four years living in Portland, Houlihan has begun to think of herself as a Portlander.
"Coming from the sun in Arizona, I wasn't sure how I was going to like the rain," she said. "But I like it a lot more than I thought I would. You get used to the rain. I enjoy running in it.
"This is a beautiful state. I've loved being able to explore it a little bit in the little time that I've been here. I just bought a '71 VW bus so that I can explore Oregon more. In downtown Portland, you can go to any restaurant and have amazing food and great beer, wine or whatever you want. There's always something to do."
Houlihan is now sharing her life in Portland with boyfriend Matt Centrowitz Jr. — "this is kind of a new thing," she said with a smile. Centrowitz, 30, is the former University of Oregon standout who is a two-time Olympian, the reigning Olympic champion at 1,500 meters and a two-time medalist in the World Championships. Does he offer racing advice?
"We don't actually talk about racing and stuff like that," she said. "But it's awesome to be surrounded by people who know what they're doing on the track. It's easy to seek advice from them, and he's definitely one of the top people that I would go to."
Centrowitz moved over from the Nike Oregon Project to the BTC group at the beginning of the year after training under NOP coach Alberto Salazar since 2011. In September, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency handed Salazar a four-year suspension for violating anti-doping rules.
"I don't have any inside scoop (on the Salazar situation)," Houlihan said. "The (USADA) does a thorough job of trying to catch people. I trust them. You just hope everyone is clean and if not, that they get caught. I try not to put a lot of thought into whether people are dirty. At the end of the day, I have to race them, anyway. I don't want to put myself at a disadvantage by thinking that they're untouchable because they're cheating."
Houlihan said she had considered joining NOP when she left Arizona State in 2015, "but I'd heard some things that I didn't totally agree with," she said.
"I didn't want to associate myself with those negative aspects," Houlihan said. "I went to Jerry, and it's been amazing. He's a great coach. He's very passionate about the sport. It's fun because he gets just as excited as you do about the good races, but he's there for you, win or lose."
Houlihan — labeled "Queen of the Kick" — feels most comfortable at 1,500 meters.
"I have a lot more experience in that race," she said. "I have a better feel for that race. The instincts are there. I know when to move and what to look for. When I race a competitive 5K, I still feel a little bit in over my head."
Schumacher said that will change with time.
"She is going to be competitive in the 1,500 for quite a while, and as she gets older, she'll get better at 5,000 and 10,000," the BTC coach said. "When you combine her speed and her development in the strength area, those combinations are incredible. She won the national cross-country (10K) championship and can go down to the 800 and 1,500 at a world-class level. She has an incredible range in terms of her gears. She can turn on a dime and really start moving."
The schedule for the Olympic trials next June will allow for Houlihan to run both the 1,500 and 5,000. The Olympic schedule hasn't yet been finalized.
"Right now, the plan would be to double her in the 1,500 and 5K at the Olympic trials," Schumacher said. "Then we'll try to figure out what she would do at the Olympic games."
"I want to run the 1,500 first," Houlihan said. "But I like having a backup plan."
Whether in one event or two, it would seem Houlihan is putting herself in position to realize her lifelong dream.
"She's one of the best in the world now," Schumacher said. "As long as she continues on this path, on any given day, when you're as good as she is, you can win the gold medal at the world championships or Olympic Games. She's not that far off the world record at 1,500 (3:50.07 by Ethiopia's Genzebe Dibaba in 2015).
"Now it's a matter of being consistently there and letting her hammer moments as they come. And those moments will come."
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