How Shelby Houlihan went from an NCAA star at 1,500 meters to a 5,000 meter Olympian

By Nicole Bush

July 11, 2017

Most of the running world was introduced to Shelby Houlihan during her successful career as a Sun Devil at Arizona State University. It was there that she was a 12-time all-American, an NCAA champion in the 1500 meters in 2014 and then nearly again a year later.

She graduated to a professional running career the spring of 2015 and by the summer of 2016 went from an 800/1,500 meter specialist and 2014 NCAA 1,500-meter Champion to a 5,000-meter runner placing 11th at the Olympics.

The trails and tracks in Rio de Janeiro, Eugene or Tempe are far from the starting line to Houlihan’s career.

Before the 2016 Millrose Games in New York City, Houlihan had only run a handful of 5,000-meter races. She’d run 5,000 meters at conference meets to assist for points toward a team score. She contested it at an NCAA regional and then once more at the national championship “just to run it” because it was her last NCAA meet and the schedule permitted it after her 1,500 meter focus.

But, she had never really chased a fast time in a 5,000 until the 2016 Millrose Games in New York City. Running 25 laps at the Armory’s 200-meter banked track wasn’t the initial intention.

“I actually wanted to do the mile at Millrose and I couldn’t get in,” said Houlihan.

After receiving this news, according to Houlihan, she and coach Jerry Schumacher had a conversation that went something like:

Jerry: Alright, we’ll just stick you in the 5k. I think you could run a good 5k. You’ve been hanging with Emily and Betsy and stuff.

Shelby: Alright (while shrugging).

But Houlihan had never actually run a 5K to really run it.

“So, I was kind of nervous about it–but at the same time, there was no pressure,” Houlihan said.

She went out with her Bowerman Track Club teammates and hung on to the hot pace from the front by Emily Infeld and Betsy Saina. She sustained it for as long as she could before crossing the finish line in 15:06 – nearly 43 seconds faster than anything she had run before.

Houlihan attributes the successful run to the presence of her teammates and a vibe she’s used to, saying, “I mean, I do that everyday in practice.”

After that Millrose performance, according to Houlihan, she and Schumacher had a conversation that went something like:

Jerry: …I think we’re gonna do the 5k this year.

Shelby: *silent nod in confirmation* *probably smiling*

“So that’s kinda how it happened,” said Houlihan.

That is also kind of how the universe shifted for her.

After such a successful run at Millrose, she did not run another 5K until the prelim at the Olympic Trials nearly five months later.

What was that like jumping events, only really running it once–five months–before the Olympic Trials and then toeing the line with so many women with such cachet in the event? Well, she was kind of nervous. But, at the same time, she said, “After Millrose I was pretty mad at myself because I felt like I could run faster.”

At Millrose, she thought she was kind of a “wimp,” that she should have “gone around Abbey (D’Agostino)” and that she should have “hung onto that lead pack.” Instead, she got in her own head and didn’t do any of that.

“So I was really mad at myself about that and I think it was actually better for me not to race it again,” Houlihan says.” Because then I had this fire in me, like, ‘I need to do this again. I know I can do better.’”

She returned to the distance on a stage that she had never been on and in an event she had never run that seriously.

So what, she was a little nervous. But her workouts had been going well and when she saw her teammate in Infeld make the 10,000-meter team, Houlihan said she thought to herself, “Well, she can make the team–I can make the team because, we workout everyday.”

She was also the last athlete of Schumacher’s group to race, as the 5,000 meter final was on the last day of the Trials. And all of her teammates were making the Olympic Team. Houlihan said she thought to herself, “Well I have to make the team now. Because, otherwise it’ll be embarrassing if I don’t. Like, I’ll be the one that doesn’t.”

If you were paying the slightest bit of attention to Houlihan on the track during that 5,000 meter final, it was on her face and in her body language; it didn’t really matter who was on the track or what they had done–it was all irrelevant and it didn’t matter. She was going to do whatever the race required of her–whatever needed to be done, whatever it took–and make the Olympic Team.

It just looked like…

“…we’re going for it,” Houlihan said.

And that was exactly the energy and focus that backed up her thought process going into the race.

This is the plan and we’re executing.

We’re going for it.

“I had actually written on my mirror, like two months out, ‘I will be an Olympian’,” Houlihan said.

But then, like all meaningful and exciting goals do–regardless of size–it started to pervade her thoughts.

I will be an Olympian

“I saw it every single day and I was telling myself it. It kind of made it–so when it actually came around to that time–I was like, ‘Yeah, I can do this. Like–yeah’,” Houlihan said.

It became decidedly true.

She had been telling herself she would be an Olympian everyday for two months and it became more of a matter of fact than a far off dream for four years from now. Combine that conviction with seeing all of her Bowerman teammates make the team–in a way normalizing it–and she had an attitude of:

“I can definitely do this,” Houlihan recalls telling herself.

And so she did it.

She became an Olympian at 23, in an event she had only ever raced with complete seriousness about four times.

With personal bests in the 1,500 and 800 of 4:03.3 and 2:01.1 respectively. Being able to split 54 for a 400 relay leg. Being a NCAA Champion and NCAA runner-up at 1,500-meters; Houlihan’s talent goes without saying, because it should be obvious.

But what elevates this Iowa native to such performances as 11th in the world her first time at the Olympics; her 6th time running the event in earnest?

It could be her love of Harry Potter. Her Patronus is a unicorn–or well, maybe it’s a beagle. She said she took a Patronus quiz and got a beagle but that she was “not happy about it”. Because she doesn’t think that’s what her Patronus is. “It should be–a unicorn,” she said.

Plus, she doesn’t even like dogs, she said. So obviously, it’s a unicorn.

Houlihan’s heightened performance is attributed to her love of the spirit of Harry Potter. But not really.

Houlihan current racing prowess can be attributed to a few things.

Joining Bowerman

According to Houlihan she “was debating on staying in Arizona” and training with her coach, Louie Quintana, at ASU. But he guided her in another direction.

Houlihan said Quintana is close with Schumacher in that they talk once in awhile. Quintana knew that she was debating staying in Tempe and that she loves Arizona.Initially, she really didn’t want to move to Portland, where the Bowerman Track Club is based.

Quintana told her that he would love to have her in Tempe to train with him and the team. But then they had a conversation that went something like:

Louie: But I mean, if Jerry wants [to coach] you, you should probably go to his group, because, he’s a great coach.

Shelby: Alright, yeah, you’re right. I know what I should do.

So to Portland she a-goed.

The smooth transition

Houlihan will aptly say it herself, that her transition from collegiate to professional went smoothly. Which isn’t the typical experience for post-collegiates. It’s typical for it to be anywhere from a little bit rocky to a lot a bit avalanche. So for athletes and fans everywhere, Houlihan’s transition is remarkable–literally, people remark about it.

Schumacher “has coached a lot of good athletes,” Houlihan said. Which also goes without saying, in the track world. “I immediately just trusted him. Which is what you have to do. You just have to be in and believe that it’s going to work.”

You have got to have faith. Houlihan season ‘15-’16: case in point.

What Houlihan thinks might be the bigger deal for such a seamless adjustment is staying healthy.

“I think staying healthy all four years of college and each year increas[ing] my mileage a little bit–to get stronger and just having those building to training–finally kind of stack up,” she said.

Setting her up pretty perfectly to begin adapting to Schumacher’s workload.

“And,” Houlihan said, “Doing the work.”

Then, the adaptation.

“His workouts were way more intense and I was getting my butt kicked every week. I would get my butt kicked every week and, like, just lay in bed the rest of the day–because I just couldn’t move,” Houlihan said.

This was a change of pace–quite literally– for Houlihan:

“In college I felt like I’d have a couple hard workouts a year that were really hard. So just the improvement in that intensity level, I think, is what really kind of skyrocketed me to the next level.”

Also, some luck. In a such a planned, calculated sport–there’s always room for it.

“Everything came together at the right moments. So, that was also luck,” Houlihan said. “I could have definitely hurt myself trying to keep up with Betsy and Emily but, it ended up being fine.”

Perfectly fine.

And the last thing that has sharpened such an edge for Houlihan?

She loves running

Like, really loves running. Probably way more than you do.

“I just get so excited to go run. Workout day is my favorite day–I love workout days,” Houlihan beamed.

Clearly giddy, Houlihan let’s out an oh-my-god noise and goes on to reenactment herself on workout day:

“It’s workout day! Yeah, let’s go, let’s go! Let’s turn on some pump up music!

“I think I just have such unlimited amounts of energy that it’s nice to put that into something,” says Houlihan.

“I just have fun trying to see what I can do,” says Houlihan. “It’s like sometimes you have those runs where it’s like everything feels amazing and the weather’s beautiful and the music is great and you get that runner’s high. And you just feel pure joy. I like to feel that. A lot.”

And it’s something that shows when Houlihan is seen out on the track.

It’s the key ingredient to succeed in anything meaningful; loving what you do.

Houlihan doesn’t run to get eleventh at the Olympics, she runs to see if she can get eleventh at the Olympics. Or 8th, or 5th or… a medal–whatever.

“I would do it even if I wasn’t a professional–I would still probably keep running. I’ll probably keep running when I’m like 70. Unless,” she pauses, “I have to be in a wheelchair or something.”

Which is a fate that has crossed many a professional runner’s mind because of all the miles and miles and miles of running put in over the years. While it’s unclear if it’s actually realistic, it seems as likely as coming across quicksand seemed, as a child.

“If I have to be in a wheelchair, I’m going to get one of those Hoverounds,” Houlihan jokes. “I’ll play bumper cars.”

Shelby Houlihan also likes cats. The nemesis of her supposed Patronus beagle. When asked if she’d have cats ride on her Hoveround she said, “That’s an even better idea.”

After mulling this opportunity and fairytale over Houlihan says, “Yeah, they could just come with me wherever I go and you can’t say anything, because I’m an old person in a wheelchair. So–it’s a great idea.”

“My future’s going to be great,” adds Houlihan.