Shelby Houlihan woke up many fans with her brilliant 1,500m win at the 2018 Nike Pre Classic. Those who watched the 2017 and 2018 USATF Indoors were also impressed with Houlihan’s huge finish speed. How will she fare in Des Moines, as she runs both the 1,500 meters and the 5000 meters? Well, senior writer David Hunter has some ideas, in his fine feature on Shelby Houlihan, Confidently Ready for Prime Time.
In virtually every walk of life, self-confidence is a sensational personal attribute. Not cockiness, mind you. But simply pure, unadulterated confidence: that inner knowledge that you have prepared properly, have cultivated your talent, and are ready to perform. Rising distance star Shelby Houlihan, bolstered by her burgeoning success on the track over the past several years, has that confidence.
It is not difficult to understand how Houlihan gained that invaluable attribute: the last 24 months have been a time of blossoming for the 25-year-old former Arizona State star. Less than 2 years ago, the then-23-year old athlete made the Olympic team by finishing as runner-up to Molly Huddle in the 2016 Trials 5000m – an accomplishment that prompted Houlihan to shed tears of joy and relief just past the finish line. On Rio’s big stage, the versatile young athlete was able to advance to the 5000m final where she finished 11th. The following winter at Albuquerque’s 2017 USATF indoor championships, Houlihan completed an impressive distance double at altitude, uncorking vicious kicks to win both the 1 mile and the 2 mile championship races. At last year’s national outdoor championships, she weathered the Sacramento steam bath better than most and once again unleashed a fast finish [61 second last 400m] to capture the 5000m crown, leaving Rowbury, Simpson, et. al. in her wake. At last year’s London world championships, the young distance star once again advanced to the 5000m final and finished 13th. Returning to Albuquerque this past winter, Houlihan doubled again, and once again was victorious in the two offered distance events, essentially successfully defending her 2017 distance titles by winning both the 3000m and the 1500m.
Coming back this week to her home state of Iowa after having placed 5 national championship gold medals in her trophy case in the past 17 months and vanquishing an international Diamond League quality field to win the 1500 meters in a world-leading 3:59.06 at last month’s Prefontaine Classic, the diminutive Houlihan is poised to perform at the highest level here in Des Moines as she attempts yet another national championship double: the 1500 meters and the 5000 meters.
In addition to her obvious talent and thorough preparation, Houlihan also has a secret weapon: an adoring crowd which has already demonstrated its eagerness to cheer on its native daughter.
“I raced here in high school – at the Drake Relays and the state meet. So I’ve run around this oval a lot, reveals the Sioux City native. “And to come back and kind of have that hometown crowd rooting me on, cheering me when I’m on the line is simply awesome.” How many Houlihan fans will be in attendance? “I’m not sure how many fans. It sounded like a lot when I was on the start line [for her preliminary round race in the 1500m]. My family is definitely here: my parents, all of my siblings, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s going to be a big crowd.”
And on Day One Houlihan gave them something to cheer about. In her opening round of the 1500m – the first of 3 races she’ll run this weekend – the Bowerman Track Club athlete started out languishing in the back of the pack, out of trouble but close enough to keep an eye on everyone. Nearly last at the bell, Houlihan moved up on the final backstretch but was still 5th with inside 200 meters remaining. Not to worry when you have the best kick of the bunch. Swinging out into lane 2 off the final curve, Houlihan knew it was time to go as she downshifted into an apparently-effortless acceleration that propelled her past everyone for the win. How powerful was her closing move? Her big homestretch burst to complete a last-lap 59.32 allowed her to glide the final 10 meters for the victory.
All smiles afterward, Houlihan offered her view on the race. “I have a busy week ahead of me so I’m just trying to conserve as much energy as possible and really not go all out until maybe the last 100 meters. I’m just trying to gauge everything and keep them in reach the whole time,” offered the wide-eyed and grinning winner who is now automatically qualified for Saturday’s mid-afternoon final. “I was keeping my eye on the front, not letting them get too far ahead of me. And I knew I had a lot left. So I wasn’t too worried about it. I was just trying to put myself in a good position for my finishing kick.”
The Jerry Schumacher protÃ©gÃ©e continues to expand and perfect her impressive middle distance range. A 21-year-old 2014 NACAC champion at 800 meters [2:03.00] – a distance she seldom races – Houlihan has shown she can maintain continuous speed over a two-lap championship competition. Yet she also has made the 5000m final in the last two global championships and sports a soon-to-be-improved 5K PR of 15:00.XX. And don’t forget she’s the current world leader at 1500 meters. Geez, what is your best distance? “I don’t know,” declares Houlihan, truly puzzled. “My favorite one is the 15. I feel I know how to run it a little better than the 5K. And I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to do the 800. I’m really liking the 1500 right now.”
But whatever the distance it’s that scintillating kick that seems to always give Houlihan that special edge. “It was good today because I could conserve so much energy up until the last 100 meters when I went. I still had a big kick in there,” states Shelby Houlihan with a smile. “And hopefully I can recover well and have that kick on Saturday and Sunday too.”
With defending champion and future Hall of Famer Jenny Simpson, Kate Grace, Brenda Martinez, and others in Saturday’s 1500m final and with Marielle Hall, Karissa Schweizer et. al. in Sunday’s 5000m final, Shelby Houlihan is likely going to need those kicks.