Shayla Houlihan ran the 3,000 meter steeplechase at the U.S. Olympic Trials, where she finished 11th out of 12 in her heat. Jon Gugala sat down with her, and spoke to her about her last race, which she declared after the finish. Shayla had given it her best, and with no regrets will now focus on the next chapter of her life, being a coach.
Shayla is the story of many athletes here. My friend Dave Frank reminded me of this on Wednesday night, as we discussed the Trials. ” I hope I never forget, that for most of the athletes here, making the Trials is a supreme effort, and their Olympic dream is made or broken here. This is their supreme effort.” Frankie, as we call him, was making a point. And he was right.
Please keep that in mind when you read this article from Jon Gugala. Please also remember this as you quietly honor the athletes who have given you moments of pleasure, moments of sadness as you view their supreme efforts….
By Jon Gugala
June 27, 2012
When I got out of the Marine Corps, four years were concluded with me seated across from my commanding officer. CWO3 Smith closed the door to his office and together we talked man to man for the first time ever, now about my plans for college and writing. The whole “Yes, sir/No, sir” thing was dropped for that moment because an enlistment was over and the future waited on the other side of the door. It was a moment when you stood on the blade between the past and the future, on a precipice looking out over the landscape of a chapter of your life and at the distant, inchoate shapes of the next.
On Monday Shayla Houlihan ran her last race.
It was the day of the women’s 3,000-meters steeplechase preliminary rounds, and Houlihan had drawn heat one. “The plan was to go at 800 [meters remaining] on the backstretch,” Houlihan says. “I went to do that, and my body just . . . almost failed. I just focused on every single step of the way from there on out.”
Houlihan would finish 11th of 12 women, missing the first six auto-qualifier spots that would have secured her in Friday’s final. Houlihan’s 10:08.58–well off her previous best of 9:51.26 set in Gent last year, and even further from where her current workouts seemed to indicate her fitness was at–sat her 22nd of 24 women. She would not advance by time.
For Houlihan, 27 years old this past February, the 2012 Olympic team trials were over, and with it, she decided, was her professional running career.
Houlihan was applying for collegiate coaching jobs last month when she realized this. “I’m OK with being done,” she remembers thinking. “I think that’s respectable for the athletes, for me not to be focused on myself.”
But this was a contingency plan. Houlihan expected to advance through rounds. She expected to vie for one of three Olympic spots.
After Monday’s disappointing finish, Houlihan asked Kyle Kepler, her coach and head coach of the University of Utah, if she had to cool down. “He told me to go and reflect on my years and where I’ve come from, the success that I have achieved,” she says. “You achieve these great things, but you can’t appreciate them until later.”
We think of the Olympic trials first for those dominant in their respective events, then of those who with experience this go-around may emerge dominant in four more years.
Houlihan is part of a third group that, with the conclusion of their competition, also conclude their career. This is her exit interview.
Houlihan and I leave the apartment she’s staying on Tuesday evening, just over 24 hours since her final race, to run on Pre’s Trail along the banks of the Willamette River in Eugene. She tells me her first memory of racing, age eight: “My parents would get me up at the butt-crack of dawn and we would drive for forever,” she says. She’d race the all-kids mile after her parents had finished their 10K. “I don’t ever remember being super competitive, but it was always really fun.”
In high school in Sioux City, Iowa (Motto: “Successful, Surprising, Sioux City,” which seems a fitting way to sum up her career), running was just one of many things Houlihan did. She was involved in student government, the marching band, and the choir. She admits she wasn’t really running mileage and that she made the state meet her senior year for the 3,000-meters–in which she finished dead last–on natural talent alone. “High school for me was more a social thing,” she says.
Houlihan walked on to the University of Northern Iowa team knowing her life would change–had to change–before the potential she believed she had could be burnished into reality. “I would get not even 30 minutes into a run and I’d be walking, watching the girls ahead of me, just getting my socks rocked,” she says.
There wasn’t a Hollywood ending to her collegiate career; after four years at UNI, Houlihan, often injured yet setting a steeplechase school record of 11:16.61, thought there was more left. Coach Kepler, who had left UNI in 2005 after her sophomore year to take over coaching at Utah, offered her the grad assistant position.
“The final straw was my dad,” Houlihan says. “I sat down with him, and he said, ‘Shayla, do you want to live in Iowa for the rest of your life?’
“I said no.
“He was like, ‘There’s your decision. You just made it.’
“It’s nice because looking back there aren’t as many of those moments now,” Houlihan says as we run.
Since her move to Park City, Utah, in 2007, Houlihan’s bests steadily dropped under Kepler. Her masters in Health Promotion finished in 2009, she remained, working first at a running store, then a bar. She ran. “Each year the learning curve was so great–I even notice it each year as a professional, the way the muscle memory comes back,” she says.
After a breakout season in 2010 in which she was undefeated in the steeple save for the U.S. Championships (she would finish sixth), two things happened of note: Houlihan signed a contract with Brooks. And she began to believe she could be an Olympian.
The choice was obvious: Houlihan quit her miscellaneous jobs and to a break from coaching. “Give it my all, you know?” she says. “No regrets.”
Houlihan and I have just finished our run when she reaches her trials steeplechase heat. The sun is setting somewhere behind the apartments, and in the trees overhead the birds are roosting for the night. We sit on the concrete in front of the apartment.
“This was the best I had felt physically and mentally going into a race this year, so I honestly believed I could be top three in that final. I got to three laps to go and I wasn’t really sure that my legs were going to be able to pick up and get over each barrier,” she says.
“Afterwards in the tent I was just telling some girl and it came out, ‘Yeah, that was my last race.'”
You sound almost in disbelief, I say.
“Yeah, a little bit. Because I really believed that I was going to make that final and really believed that I was going to be in the mix to make that team.”
I ask her if she felt different when she woke this morning, now on the other side of her running career.
“I was a little bit empty.”
We go upstairs so I can get my bag and head home to write up her story and so she can change to meet up with friends for the evening. I have two more questions.
The 19 years you’ve been running, have they been worth it?
“Heck yeah,” she says immediately.
Houlihan pauses. She’s putting on makeup in the mirror as she starts to speak, stops, and then starts again.
“Because I found my passion in it all, what it is that drives me and keeps me motivated to get through the next day,” she says. “I found ultimately what I want to do in life, and I think that’s hard for people to figure out.
Of her future in coaching, she says, “I feel like I figured that out.”
Houlihan turns the water on to wash her hands. It hisses in the sink, on its way to the ocean.