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December 30, 2018

CITIUS MAG Athlete of the Year – The Case For…Shelby Houlihan

The disappointing thing about the non-championship years in track and field is the lack of consequence. Generally, most track and field races aren’t very appealing to the casual viewer. It’s much easier for them to watch if they know that whoever wins the race is winning some sort of championship or grand prize and generally this isn’t limited to just track and field. Football’s biggest viewership typically comes during the Super Bowl, the NBA during the Finals, and MLB (when they don’t have two small market teams competing), has its largest viewership for the World Series.

As much as we complain and whine about the casual fans only caring every four years for the Olympics, they’re not entirely wrong. A race that has something on the line is simply more compelling no matter how much you know about the sport. Watching the seventh heat of JV Boys 200-meter races at some random invitational in Mississippi is fairly boring, but if I were to tell you that everyone who doesn’t win the race gets jettisoned on a one-way rocket to the moon, suddenly you’re interested. It’s not new. We care about the high school kids in leather jackets racing for pink slips in “Grease” a lot more than we care about Danny’s track and field career (which based off his hurdle form probably wasn’t heading anywhere).

So, we were met with a year in track that didn’t have a big championship meet at the end (the Diamond League Final is a marketing tool invented by Seb Coe to sell t-shirts). Typically, these off-years are when athletes decide to try other events, start a family, or if you’re Shelby Houlihan, completely dominate women’s distance running in the United States.

Shelby has always been good, that needs to be stated. She’s made an Olympic team, won U.S. titles, by no means is Shelby a no-name. The thing is that 2018 Shelby was different.

What makes 2018 Shelby different is that she’s a track and field version of The Predator.

You don’t know how she’s going to get you, you just know she will. No matter how far ahead you are coming down the stretch, she’s still going to catch you. The bell lap can’t save you from the French Bread Freight Train arriving on that last lap.

At Prefontaine, she beat a world class field after moving up from ninth on the last lap, cutting through the field with an ease that made the gaps between runners seem wider than a football field.

At Lausanne, she was far back from the lead, again, and ran to the front, again, and beat a world class field, again.

Even in a Diamond League Final where she finished second to Laura Muir, it didn’t feel like Shelby had lost until Muir cashed her $50,000 check for the victory. I still have my doubts it actually happened, but I’ll keep those conspiracy theories to myself.

Throw in the fact that I’ve failed to mention that Shelby won four US titles (over a middle-distance group that may be the deepest in American history), set an American record in the 5,000 meters (with a 26-second PR), and it’s hard for me to see anyone else being the CITIUS MAG Female Athlete of the Year.

She’s turned races into must-see TV (or uh, must-see streaming video) in a year where there wasn’t much on the face to get excited about. We’ll look back at this year as one of the most impressive seasons ever put together by an American distance runner, but I think more importantly we’ll see it as the year Shelby Houlihan kicked the door down, smacked us in the face, and demanded our attention for the next 10 years.

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