SIOUX CITY -- As a freshman at East High, Carter Lilly recalls one or two training runs with celebrated senior Shelby Houlihan.
The son of Kevin and Jane Lilly, partners in a Sioux City dental practice, was only running track to prepare himself for basketball and football.
As a sophomore, however, the young half-miler earned a trip to the Class 4A state meet. All of a sudden, his interest picked up.
“I didn’t expect that (the state meet berth) at all,’’ he said. “After that, I just kind of really committed to it.’’
The new-found enthusiasm brought about quite a transformation as Lilly capped each of his two remaining high school seasons with state runner-up finishes in the Class 4A 800-meter run.
Just like that, he attracted the interested of the University of Iowa track program. And, ever since, he’s been earning quite a few flattering labels.
Like “All-American,’’ an honor he’s won multiple times both athletically and academically.
Like “Big Ten champion,’’ which he became last winter, running 800 meters as the third leg on Iowa’s distance medley relay at the conference indoor championships.
A few years down the road, most likely, he’ll be Carter Lilly, DDS, embarking on the same career that brought his parents together as dental school classmates.
By then, hopefully, he can also be known for the rest of his life as “Carter Lilly, former Olympian.’’
Living up to Houlihan’s already storied career isn’t the best part of this story. You see, Lilly is chasing the Olympic dream from a rather unusual trajectory.
Jane (Matheus) Lilly, a native of the Philippines, came to the U.S. at the age of 5. Embracing this part of his heritage last year, Carter petitioned his mother’s native country for dual citizenship. Now, after having that request approved last summer, he’ll be attempting to represent the Philippines at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“I’ve always wanted to run in the Olympics,’’ he said. “I thought this would be the best way for me to do that.’’
Lilly, of course, could make it to Tokyo through the U.S. Olympic Trials, where he’d need to finish third or better. However, he could earn a ticket for the Philippines by shaving somewhere around one second off his personal best clocking of 1:46.95, good for 10th place at last summer’s U.S.A. Track and Field’s Outdoor Championships in Des Moines. That would get him to the anticipated qualifying standard of 1:45.8 or possibly 1:45.9.
“I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of really good training, really running strong during this indoor season,’’ said the fifth-year senior who postponed his one remaining outdoor season of eligibility until this spring.
The reason: Unselfishly, after visiting with his coaches, Lilly was agreed to hang around to help Iowa try to win the Big Ten Outdoor title when that 109-year-old event comes to Iowa City for just the fifth time ever in May.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll stay around another year because we have a pretty good shot of winning it,’’ he said.
Fourth in the Big Ten’s open 800 two years ago -- his last outdoor season -- he’ll try to win that title in his last go-round. Meanwhile, he’ll also likely be running in both medley relays and the 4x800, which he helped the Hawkeyes win last spring at the Drake Relays.
“I’ll probably try to make it onto our 4x400, too, but we’re super fast in that this year,’’ he said.
Lilly started two seasons in the secondary for playoff football teams at East. He was also a starter as a senior in basketball after playing a strong role off the bench in his junior campaign. Both of those hoop squads lost substate final battles with North teams featuring major league baseball hopefuls Daniel Tillo and Robert Neustrom -- teams that had split a pair of regular season meetings with East either season.
These two sports were his priorities when he crossed paths with Houlihan.
“I didn’t take it as serious at that point,’’ he said.
Now, however, each addition to Shelby’s mounting pile of national titles serves as strong motivation.
“Any time I see her do anything like that, I’m like ‘I need to get to work,’ ‘’ he said.
Since he already graduated with a degree in human physiology last May, Lilly is required to take at least 12 credit hours each of the two semesters he is still in the program, preparing for spring. Already accepted into dental school, he has deferred that opportunity for two years in hopes of fulfilling the Olympic quest.
“Our coaches always say we need to prepare like a professional athlete and live the life of a professional athlete,’’ he said. “So, it goes beyond practice. Like making sure I’m eating right, sleeping right, staying on top of school and just doing all the right things outside of working out. (Improving) is all about the other outside stuff.’’
Lilly’s 1:47.33 in 2017 is Iowa’s school record in the indoor 800, but the outdoor standard belongs to 2014 NCAA runner-up Eric Sowinski, who clocked 1:45.90 in 2012. Sowinski is considered one of the top American hopefuls for the Tokyo Games. Lilly, by the way, has the second best outdoor 800 ever by a Hawkeye runner with a 1:47.32 in 2016.
His high school P.R. of 1:51.52 came in a close race at the 2014 state meet, trailing only Josh Evans of Linn-Mar (1:49.98). In the 2013 state final, he was nearly two full seconds behind the winning 1:52.75 by Cedar Rapids Jefferson’s Timauntay Jones (Lilly clocked 1:54.61).
“My junior year, I was just kinda there, but my senior year it was close until he passed me with about 60 meters to go,’’ said Lilly, who also placed fifth in the 400 as a senior.
Dr. Kevin Lilly attended Davenport West as a high school sophomore and then moved to Sioux City when his father, Dick, Carter’s grandfather, became the principal at West High.