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It’s mid-April. The year is 2020. And like most people around the world, Shelby Houlihan is trying to make sense of life during a pandemic.
And like thousands of other Americans, she’s sitting on her bed during the afternoon, talking about it on Zoom. “The day we found out that the Olympics were postponed, I went to the store and bought some candy,” she says, giggling. “I just said, ‘I’m going to deal with this the way I want to deal with it.’ Ice cream every night. I went pretty hard that week. I’m still eating crappy sometimes, but now I’m trying to have really healthy dinners, at least.”
Everybody copes differently amid a global outbreak of a deadly virus, but even the most talented athletes in the world can relate to the mundane struggles on some level. The upheaval of schedules can take a toll—especially when the plan for peak performance has been in the works for at least four years. Finding a routine without races to train for, practices to attend, or lifting sessions to get to presents challenges.
Houlihan has fallen into late-night video game marathons with her boyfriend, Matthew Centrowitz, who won the 1500-meter gold medal at the 2016 Olympics. It’s a title she covets, by the way—she’s hellbent on having her own one day.
“I’ve been enjoying the mental break—the time off of not feeling that pressure, just kind of getting back to running because I like it,” Houlihan says. “I’m still working really hard, but I’ve gotten sucked into Matthew’s habit of staying up really late—like 2 a.m.—and waking up at like, 10 a.m. I am a morning person and I feel more motivated if I get up early. I think there’s something to trying to keep the same routine as normal.”
As one of the most gifted middle-distance runners the country has ever seen, this was supposed to be Houlihan’s year. She didn’t just want to make the Olympic team in the 1500 meters, she was (and is) gunning for a medal at the Tokyo Games, which were rescheduled for July 2021. And to anybody who’s ever watched her compete, there’s no doubt she has the talent to make it happen.
In October at the world championships in Doha, she set the American record in the event (3:54.99), for fourth place. That was her second national record—she also owns one in the 5,000 meters (14:34.45). But this spring she’s holed up in her Portland, Oregon, home instead of hunkered down at a training camp in the mountains with her Bowerman Track Club teammates. In some ways it’s not such a different routine, though the purpose in all the miles and workouts right now feels a bit less focused.
In her Zoom frame, Houlihan is leaning against a mural in her bedroom that she painted herself, mountain peaks in shades of deep to light purples. It took her 12 hours to complete after she moved into her place in 2017—revealing a creative side most don’t realize the track star possesses. Her beloved gray tabby cat, Miko, is snoozing at her feet. He’s never far away—she refers to the feline as her emotional support animal and takes him with her everywhere, like altitude camps, competitions, and on visits to her see her family in Arizona.
Miko is also not immune to the pandemic’s repercussions. “I think he’s also unmotivated because he’s sleeping even more than normal—he just eats and sleeps and gains weight,” Houlihan says, laughing. “We’re going to have to go back to altitude at some point and try to burn that off again.”
Houlihan’s soft spot for her cat may confuse those who only know her by the intensity of her game face.
When she hits the track, her ice-blue eyes focus dead ahead, no hint of levity or camaraderie to be found. She straight-up looks like she could hurt somebody. And the fury of her trademark finishing kick—almost like she fires up rocket boosters at the bell lap—often does leave competitors wounded.
“Warming up, I can be joking around with you and super goofy, then as soon as I step on that line it’s like, ‘Game on; I’m ready to go,’” Houlihan says. “I’m just there to do my business. I just want to get out there and rip people apart.”
No doubt Houlihan’s competitive fire is the reason her pro running career skyrocketed so quickly. At 23 years old, she made her first Olympic team by finishing second in the 5,000 meters to Molly Huddle at the 2016 Olympic Trials, crossing the finish line with relief, disbelief, and pure joy.
Two months before that career-altering moment, Houlihan had written “I will be an Olympian” on her mirror in all caps. At the time, she says, she didn’t believe it. But she repeated it to herself every day, until that July race when she made it so.
Houlihan’s mom, Connie, was a professional runner herself (in 1987 she qualified for the world championships by finishing the Twin Cities Marathon in 2:35). She remembers seeing the message scrawled on her daughter’s mirror, and it moved her to tears.
“I was like, ‘Wow.’ It touched me,” Connie says. “That’s the fighter in her. Her life’s been a little bit of a fight.”
Houlihan was born with a rare hereditary blood disorder called spherocytosis, which caused extreme anemia and fatigue, as well as an enlarged spleen, for the first eight years of her life. She spent a lot of time in the hospital for treatments and blood transfusions—and eventually surgery to remove her gallbladder and spleen, which was four times the size it should’ve been. Her immune system is fragile—if she catches a virus, it can be serious.
Even so, Connie knew she probably had an athlete on her hands when Houlihan started walking at nine months.
“We were always chasing her. She wanted to run everywhere but she’d wear out because she was so anemic,” Connie says. “But her hematologist said, ‘Don’t hold her back. Don’t protect her all the time.’ She was so strong-willed I let her play whatever she wanted. She was a challenge.”
Early on, Houlihan tried soccer and gymnastics, but after Connie entered her in some youth cross-country races, it was clear that her daughter had inherited a love and talent for running, clocking seven-minute miles before she ever left elementary school. In a family of seven kids—four from her dad, Bob’s, previous marriage, plus Shelby, Chloe, and Callie, who came after Connie and Bob were married—it was Shelby and older sister Shayla, now a professional running coach and former elite steeplechaser, who gravitated toward the track.
“Shelby used to tell me, ‘Mom, I’m going to be the best. I’m going to be somebody someday,’” Connie says.
Those declarations didn’t come naturally to Houlihan, though. As she grew up in that large, tight-knit family (the “Houlifans” travel the world to watch her compete), she relied on self-help books to learn how to have more confidence, not just as an athlete, but as a girl growing up in sometimes claustrophobic Sioux City, Iowa, where the kids could be tough on each other.
“Growing up, I didn’t have a ton of friends. I was alone a lot and was in a relationship or two that also really brought my confidence and my self-esteem down to zero, so that was really hard,” Houlihan says. “I went through a lot of depression. Looking back now, I feel very proud of myself for what I’ve been able to do since then—and a lot of that self-confidence I’ve found in running.”
The track was the place where Houlihan felt most comfortable and fulfilled, so she gradually spent more time there. “It’s helped me discover who I am as a person, not that my identity is wrapped up in track by any means—I am a lot more than that—but it’s something I needed growing up,” she says. “It’s always been there for me. If I’m angry or upset, I can just go for a run.”
Houlihan and her younger sister Chloe have been especially close through the years, born just two years apart. Sometimes Chloe is surprised by how outgoing her big sister has become—remembering a version of Houlihan who didn’t have a lot to say as a child.
“When she was younger it was like pulling teeth to get her to talk sometimes,” Chloe says. “The friends she did have, she made close connections with. She has a lot of loyalty and respect for them. But Shelby was the absolute star in high school—she’d win races by like five minutes. We always knew she was going to do big things.”
When it came time to pick a college, Houlihan and her mom visited several programs.
But it was Arizona State University that felt like the right place. She didn’t want to go somewhere cold, and it was important that she liked the university even if running wasn’t an option. Houlihan wanted to feel happy wherever she was, even if she ended up benched with an injury at some point.
It was fortuitous that Ryan Cole spearheaded Houlihan’s NCAA career, she says. She came without a lot of mileage under her belt, logging just 30–35 miles per week, and he insisted that she remain patient, even when she wanted to push more volume with the older women on the team who were getting in 80 miles a week.
“I came into this D-1, Pac-12 program after winning everything in high school, and I’d get like 30th or 40th place in cross-country races and got so down on myself,” Houlihan says. “He sat me down and explained that I was wasting my time comparing myself to everybody else. He said that the path I was on would keep me healthy—that I should trust the process and be patient with it.”
She took her coach’s word for it, and it turned out to be the piece of advice she carries with her to this day. Her junior year she won the NCAA title for 1500 meters, the first Arizona State athlete to ever win an individual championship at the distance. By the time she graduated in 2015, Houlihan was a 12-time All-American and held the Sun Devil records in the 800 meters, 1500 meters, one mile, and 3,000 meters.
More importantly, Houlihan avoided major injuries throughout her NCAA career, which is a feat for female runners who are still developing during those years. It allowed for the kind of consistency in training that leads to longevity in the sport.
“Even the success that I’ve had now, that started when I was a freshman in college and I’ve continued to live by that, staying really, really patient, trusting that things will come together,” she says. “I still feel like there’s so much more untapped potential there that I’m very excited about.”
The decision about the next phase of Houlihan’s career felt a lot like picking a college, she recalls. She had options to choose from and had a difficult time figuring out what would be best for her pro career. She and her mom once again talked about what would make her happy not just in her training, but outside of it, too.
Connie remembers the moment her daughter realized what she wanted. It was in Eugene, Oregon, at the U.S. outdoor track championships, while they were out to eat.
“She’s hard to get to open up sometimes, but when I get her to, she really does,” Connie says. “I just said, ‘What are you really feeling on the inside? What feels right to you?’ She’s sitting across from me and she said, ‘Mom, I just feel that if I don’t go and get coached under [Bowerman Track Club coach] Jerry [Schumacher], I’ll always wonder.’ I said, ‘Well, I think you just made your decision.’ She’s never regretted it—she loves Jerry, she loves training with the group.”
For Houlihan, the Bowerman group has never been just a bunch of training partners, either.
“It is just a good group of women that are able to push each other, but at the same time be there and support each other. That was huge for me and something I never had before,” Houlihan says. “Growing up and not having a lot of friends, this was perfect. I get automatic friends.”
Shalane Flanagan was the sole woman on the Bowerman team for several years before she helped recruit the members who have helped it become one of the most successful pro groups in the world.
Now a coach for the team, she remembers thinking back then that Houlihan’s talent was limitless, calling her “Brenny,” because Houlihan seemed like a lethal combination of Olympic 1500-meter bronze medalist Jenny Simpson and world championships 800-meter silver medalist Brenda Martinez.
“She’s the perfect package of endurance and speed. You could tell she was under-trained—she wasn’t fully maximizing what was there yet, which was great,” Flanagan says. “I didn’t know her well at all back then, but I liked her fiery racing style and how she always put her nose in it. And I got the sense that she was a little naive about how good she could be.”
The transition to the pro ranks was difficult, but exhilarating for Houlihan, now a 13-time national champion. Among the most transformative changes she made was heeding Flanagan’s advice about better fueling and nutrition. It was a part of her athletic life that she hadn’t paid much attention to—but as a pro, she realized she couldn’t get away with eating the way she always had and expect to perform at the level she wanted.
“In high school I was going to McDonald’s to get a sausage, egg, and cheese McGriddle with a Dr. Pepper. That was my breakfast,” Houlihan says. “When I got to college, I gained 10 pounds and had to meet with a nutritionist—my dietary goal was to eat fast food only one time a day. I’d make Pasta Roni with broccoli I threw in the microwave and in my mind, I was like, ‘This is super healthy. I’m doing a great job!’”
Beyond Houlihan’s nutritional growth (learned mostly by cooking group meals at altitude camps), Flanagan has enjoyed watching Houlihan’s confidence blossom over the years as the training blocks pile up.
The big breakthrough came in the summer of 2018.
Houlihan stunned with a win in the 1500 meters at the prestigious Prefontaine Classic against a stacked international field. Just two months later, Flanagan helped pace her to that 5,000-meter national record during a race in Belgium.
“She throws herself into the hard training with some reckless abandon at times—she’s been known to go out on long runs with the guys and blow herself up,” Flanagan says. “I’d say that most of her teammates are more conservative and would never do that, but she likes getting after it and working really hard.”
Since she arrived at the Bowerman Track Club, Houlihan has a bigger belief in what she can accomplish. Before the 2019 world championships, for example, Houlihan said she was targeting the American record in the 1500 meters—she was casual in mentioning the goal to her coaches, while firm in her ability to achieve it. She (and nearly everybody else) thought it would be good enough to medal in Doha, but she came up short on that end, placing fourth.
“That was a really hard moment, but I think those hard moments are when I learn and grow,” Houlihan says. “I feel like if I keep showing up, that I have to get a medal at some point. There’s just no way that doesn’t happen. I would have been happier walking away with a medal and no American record that day, I think.”
Although Houlihan is a star, she’s keenly aware that she trains among many other stars. And while they’re all friends and dedicated to helping each other succeed, they’re also competitors.
When Houlihan lines up to race, often her stiffest domestic competition will come from another Bowerman Track Club athlete. And sometimes she gets beat, like at the Boston University Last Chance Invitational, where she, Karissa Schweizer, and Colleen Quigley were all going for the 3,000-meter national record, which at the time was held by none other than Flanagan (8:33.25).
For those not privy to the day-to-day workouts of the Bowerman athletes, Schweizer’s win and record (8:25.70) was a shock. After all, she’s the rookie of the group, a six-time NCAA champion who graduated from the University of Missouri in 2018. But Houlihan says that Schweizer had been challenging her in workouts since the summer.
“I hated that I lost that race. I just didn’t feel good on the day and that’s the way it is sometimes. If I’m not on my A game, Karissa is going to be right there,” Houlihan says. “I respect her so much and I know how hard she works, so as much as it sucks that I didn’t win, I’m glad she got it. There’s no way I could be mad at her for that. I’m sure she’s going to break my 5K record and she’s going to cause more trouble for me, but I’m going to enjoy it.”
Don’t mistake Houlihan’s seriousness on the track with becoming a one-dimensional athlete.
Regardless of the lofty goals and long list of achievements, she a bit of a class clown at practice, and “she has a wild child side, too,” Flanagan laughs. “She’s always plotting something, whether it’s getting a tattoo or wanting to go skydiving—she is always up for fun and adventure.”
If you want to understand Houlihan’s general philosophy in life, you don’t have to search too hard—it’s tattooed right there, a sleeve on her right arm. A globe, a paper airplane, pine trees, mountains, a cactus, and a quote: “The trouble is, you think you have time.”
“I think people get stuck in their routines of work, eat, sleep—I don’t want my life to just pass by, I want to make sure that I do all the things that I want to do and have the experiences that I want to have,” she says. “That’s the whole message of the tattoo, just taking my life into my own hands and making it what I want.”
Houlihan makes good on that promise to herself. She bought a red Volkswagen bus last year, now affectionately nicknamed the “Houlivan,” to help facilitate a few of her many adventures, like living in a tiny house in Colorado for a weekend.
She has a list stored on her phone of places she wants to go and experiences she wants to have, and she tries to check at least one off each year. She encourages the people she cares about to do the same. For her dad’s birthday in 2017, she bought tickets and planned a trip to Ireland—a place he’d always wanted to visit, but kept putting off. That was unacceptable to his fifth-born, who also happens to be among the biggest Harry Potter fans you’ll ever meet (“I got my own wand!” she says).
“A month after we got back from Ireland, I went to Harry Potter World in Florida,” Houlihan says. “I had the time of my life. I took my best friend with me—I just texted her and was like, ‘Hey, what are you doing in two weeks? I booked these tickets.’ I was a kid in a candy shop; I was so excited.”
It’s that spontaneous, childlike wonder that keeps Houlihan grounded. The serious athlete can’t exist without the happy, go-lucky goofball. For a woman who started off as a sick, shy child, she’s transformed into a killer on the track who can’t wait to grab a burger and a milkshake after the race.
“It’s a funny transition from where she’s at now, because the first few years of our lives we were in and out of the hospital all the time with her. I remember spending Christmas Eve one year in the hospital overnight, and our parents brought the presents there,” Chloe says. “It’s a big show of her strength and her push to accomplish things. That’s just who she is.”
At just 27 years old, Houlihan has yet to see her peak performances, she says. Her career to-do list is just as long as the places she wants to go: Break 3:50 in the 1500 meters; break 14 minutes in the 5,000 meters (“That sounds crazy,” she says. “Even if I’m not physically capable of it, I think you have to have that mentality, so I’m not going to apologize for that.”).
And in the years to come? Maybe race 10,000 meters or see if she’s got chops for the marathon.
“I want to go after the 10K American record at some point,” she says. “I’m very strong aerobically. Long runs are my jam. I love really hard long runs. So I’m not going to say that marathoning is off the table. I’m going to do whatever I think is going to put me in the best position to medal. And if that’s the marathon, then I’m fine with that. I don’t mind at all.”
But right now, it’s mid-April. The year is 2020. And Houlihan is vowing to start the video game tournament with Centrowitz at an earlier hour, so she can get back to her pre-quarantine early-morning routine. There’s still work to be done, whether she’s stuck at home in Portland or roaming the countryside in her VW bus with Miko.
“I have some unfinished business,” she says. “I want my gold medal.”