Seven “Houlifans” sit in section U on Saturday at Drake Stadium, in Des Moines, Iowa. And more in section S— brothers, sisters, aunts—one of them with a voice that conducts well in a crowd and 90-degree heat and humidity. All told, 20 relatives are cheering on Shelby Houlihan, Olympian and American record holder for 5,000 meters, at the 2019 U.S.A. Track & Field Outdoor Championships, where she won the 1500- and 5,000-meter titles.
She’s Iowa born, and raised on love and family and no excuses. And the self-described “Houlifans” are a network of blood and soul relations that explain a lot about how Shelby rose out of Sioux City to become the most dominant middle-distance runner in the country and a player at the international level.
“We travel in a big squad,” says Shayla, one of Shelby’s older sisters, describing the fandom as especially strong on native Iowa soil.
The group is staying at a hotel out in Clive, the closest that could accommodate all of them. And they know the rules of engagement with their track superstar: Dinner on Wednesday, “good luck” and “love you” texts from close family, but otherwise, keep a distance.
“Do you think we can meet her?” asks a relative who had only watched Shelby race on television until now.
“After the 5,000,” is the answer.
They wait and sweat in section U, anticipating the 1500 meter final start—Shelby’s dad, Bob Houlihan, younger sister Callie, mom, Connie, Shayla, and some friends from Sioux City. All wearing various Bowerman Track Club-branded shirts, representing the team from Portland, Oregon, with whom Shelby trains. Connie has a sweatshirt with “Houlihan” printed on it tied around her waist.
The name Houlihan wafts up from conversations several rows below them.
“Happens all the time. You just ignore it,” Connie says, laughing.
Connie is fit, tan, radiating with energy, fire-spitting eyes, and dentist-pleasing smile. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
“Are you nervous?” Connie touches Shayla’s leg as the runners step to the line down on the track.
“No, no,” Shayla says. Bucket hat and blond, with the same quick smile. “I know she’s feeling really good. Or rather, she knows that.”
Of the seven Houlihan siblings, Shayla and Shelby are especially tight. Shayla, now a coach who just departed a position leading the distance athletes at the University of California Berkeley, was once a professional steeplechaser herself.
Waiting for the gun, the Houlifans are poised over their Apple watches. Connie ducks her head and crosses herself. She holds youngest daughter Callie’s hand.
Bob, Nike capped and mustached, checks the heat sheets but otherwise remains remarkably calm.
The gun cracks. Lauren Johnson takes the race out with a bang, jumping out to a 10-meter lead. The pace is quick from the start, unusual for a championship. When Shelby comes by the homestretch the first time, the family cheers.
Just enough, a hit of love as she passes. Like their runner, the Houlihan group-mind conserves, gathers, waits.
“Sixty-seven,” Shayla quietly calls the splits.
The second time she comes around, Shayla starts a chant.
“Shel-by, Shel-by, Shel-by!”
They lean forward. The Houlifans lick their lips. The tension builds. Shayla and Connie put their hands to their faces. Callie’s knees bounce. Bob gets in a solid cheer as Shelby passes by section U but otherwise remains still. Down on the track, their daughter and Olympic bronze medalist Jenny Simpson reel in Johnson and get serious about the pace. The family leans forward, willing, sending. As the runners round the final turn, Shelby presses ahead of Simpson, gritting.
Houlifans, the entire stadium jump to their feet. Down the final straight, Connie holds up her hands, unable to speak. The aunt in section S carries everyone.
“Sheeeelllllboooooooo!” she screams.
Houlihan wins another national 1500-meter title, in a facility record time of 4:03.18. Connie and Shayla and Callie and Bob hoot and high five.
Connie takes off her sunglasses and bends over, laughing. Runners come across the line and lean on their knees and touch each other on the shoulders. As everyone else in the stands find their seat again, Bob stands up and waves at Shelby. Somehow, at that exact moment, his daughter, the champion, looks up from the tumult on the track, meets eyes with her father, waves, and gives a thumbs up.
The Houlihans were that family whose house you always played at as a kid, because they had a giant trampoline and better snacks.
The immediate family consists of seven “kids” that range in age from 20 to 52 (Shelby is third from the youngest), headed up by Bob, 72, and Connie, 61.
Bob still works at his own CPA firm in Sioux City. When Connie married Bob, she instantly became a mother to his four children from a previous marriage. They went on to have three more. Despite that “weird age dynamic,” as Connie calls it, the Houlihans are a tight bunch, and that is not accidental.
“We’re very supportive of each other,” Shayla says, as she drove from her home in Colorado to Des Moines earlier in the week. “We group chat on a daily basis so we know what’s going on in each other’s lives. We’re very, very close. Divorced families sometimes don’t come together, but we 100 percent don’t see each other as half siblings. Our parents really instilled that in us—we have a special family bond.”
The family is separated, not only by age, but by geography—Arizona, Los Angeles, Texas, Portland, Cedar Falls. Shelby’s racing provides an opportunity for the diaspora to come together and travel. The immediate Houlihan clan of nine, augmented by aunts, uncles, cousins, and spouses, hit critical mass in Rio during the 2016 Olympics. That’s where, to the best of anyone’s memory, the term “Houlifans” was born.
“It was a way to identify us as a unit,” Shayla says. “T-shirts? Oh yeah, Mama Connie was all over the Houlifan t-shirts.”
Shelby talked about starting running at age 5 and Shayla, eight years the elder sister, says she wasn’t the one who inspired the kindergartner to give it a try. That again was Mama Connie’s doing.
“We followed our mom around to local races,” Shayla says. “That’s how we got exposed to it.”
Turns out, Mama Connie is behind a lot more than Houlifan t-shirts. Like other Houlifans, Connie Prince Houlihan was on her way to Des Moines from their cabin on the Iowa great lake, Okoboji, where she spends the summer with an ever-changing lineup of children, grandchildren, and plus-ones. The hubbub, the towels drying on railings like Midwestern prayer flags—she’s in her element.
Connie laughs. She laughs all the time and has lots of stories. She talks about kids playing softball in the side yard, and jumping off the dock, and it’s hard to tell whether she’s talking about 20 years ago or yesterday. Or after this weekend when the whole crew, Shelby included, will spend some time at the family cabin.
She laughs when she talks about running through her pregnancies, two miles, slow, the day Shelby was born. And she laughs thinking about her always-moving daughter.
“She was always so active. At the last minute, she flipped and went breach,” Connie says. “That’s my life with Shelby.”
Connie grew up in Sioux City and followed her brother, Bob, to Kansas State in 1976. She was fast—58 seconds for 400 meters, 2:10 for 800, which, she says, would have been faster but she was plagued by injuries.
“That’s where Shelby gets her speed,” she says.
There weren’t many post-collegiate opportunities for women in 1980, at least not for 800-meter runners, but there were women running marathons.
“My sister said, ‘You could do that.’ And I said, “Yeah, I probably could,’” Connie says.
It was as good as a dare.
“Shelby’s like that too—don’t ever tell her she can’t do something because she’ll go out and prove you wrong,” Connie says.
In 1984, Connie came up to the Twin Cities Marathon and ran 2:40 in her second-ever go at the distance. In 1986, she covered the same course in 2:35 and qualified for the 1987 world championship marathon.
“I was probably in 2:27 shape but, you know, we didn’t really know how to train. We were kind of making it up as we went,” she says. “No gels or anything—I think I took some water.”
She laughs again, thinking of the pioneer days of road running.
She and Bob brought the kids along to road races, and they enrolled them in a youth cross country program.
“They ran a mile. It was fun, never serious. Shelby beat all the older girls; I think by age 8 she’d already run six-flat,” Connie says. “She loved it. You could tell it was inside her. We kid her all the time about her fierce racing face, her game face, but she really does love it. When she was signing the Nike contract, she called and said, ‘Mom, I would do this for free, I love it so much.’ And I said, ‘Shhhh, don’t tell them that.’”
The Houlihan crew learned to support each other regardless of the pursuit.
“Bob is a good husband and a good dad. In the winter, I’d be out doing a 20-miler. Bob would drive out with water and make sure I got home okay, and he’d bring Shelby along in the car,” Connie says. “Like that, we’ve tried to make sure they always had a big support system.”
For Shayla and Shelby, the early exposure to running stuck. Shayla ran steeplechase, 1500 meters, and 5,000 meters in college, and competed professionally as a Brooks athlete for two years before turning to coaching. That running bond is a golden triangle for Connie.
“I’ve always had a lot of fun with them. Even when I was 53, 54 I was still racing. We’d go out for a run, all three of us, and get to giggling and laughing,” Connie says. “That was something special we shared.”
Connie laughs, adding that she misses those runs—a fall on the ice several years ago has restricted her running. At least at Shelby’s pace.
“You know, parents now want to push, push, push. Shelby called me recently and said, ‘Thank you for letting me be a kid, and have Hardees hot ham and cheese and chocolate shakes,” she says.
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I want to wish a big Happy Birthday to my Momma. You are an unbelievably strong and beautiful person who has always shown me how to simply be myself. You’ve shown me how to have fun, enjoy life, and never grow up😉 You’re my #1 fan and you’ve always been there to support me and my dreams. I’m glad to be spending your birthday with you and hope you have an amazing day. You deserve it❤️😘😘 #MommaConnie #foreveryoung #outout
Down under the stands at Drake Stadium where media mix with athletes immediately after their race, Shelby, with the same intensity, the same fire-spitting eyes as her mom, recalls the same stories—running youth cross country, riding shotgun with her dad. And she laughs a lot, like her mom.
They know each other well, the Houlihans. Shelby mentions that her short-term plan after Sunday’s 5,000 meters is a chocolate shake at Zombie Burger. It was what her mom guessed she’d want to do to celebrate.
“I’m going to Zombie Burger,” Shelby tells the media, “with my family.”
The Houlifans wouldn’t have it any other way.