SIOUX CITY -- Less than a month past her 24th birthday, Shelby Houlihan is clearly to Sioux City women’s track and field what Kirk Hinrich became to local basketball.
The word is “incomparable.’’
Not that Houlihan hadn’t already earned that status by reaching the 2016 Olympics just a year after finishing up a sensational college career at Arizona State University.
To be fair, a championship double at the USA Track and Field Indoor Nationals, which concluded Sunday in Albuquerque, wasn’t even really Shelby at her best. And, those two national titles weren’t seriously challenged in races she won in convincing fashion.
Houlihan, actually, may never actually realize her “best,’’ but that’s only because she refuses to accept any limits on what she might achieve.
“As long as my running career continues -- hopefully another 10 years -- that’s how I’m looking at it,’’ she projected in a recent interview with this reporter. “I’m up to (running) 70 miles a week. That’s still not as much as some of my teammates (on the Portland-based Bowerman Track Club), but I’m focusing on staying healthy.’’
America’s women’s distance running elite were not all present for Saturday and Sunday’s competition at the Albuquerque Convention Center. With more than three years until the next Olympics, several of Houlihan’s more formidable rivals bypassed these annual rites.
So, the weekend’s efforts in the challenging conditions of high altitude turned into more of a tactical test for the former East High star who became a 12-time All-American at ASU.
Three weeks after launching her 2017 season with a best-ever mile time of 4:24.16 Feb. 10 at Boston University -- Mary Decker’s U.S. indoor record of 4:20.5 dates back a quarter-century to 1982 -- Houlihan won the indoor mile crown with a 4:45.18 clocking.
Less oxygen may create advantages for long jumpers or golfers or cleanup batters, but it doesn’t help you run distance events any faster.
“It’s harder to breathe,’’ said Houlihan, who prepared herself earlier this winter with more than a month of training at altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona. “We do that two or three times a year (altitude training).’’
Teammate Colleen Quigley, a former NCAA champ at Florida State, roomed with Houlihan and two other Bowerman-sponsored women for that training in Flagstaff. And, not only did Quigley run a close second in the Boston race with a 4:24.88 effort, she was also second on Saturday with 4:45.58 in the much slower USATF race.
Four-time USATF Outdoor mile champion Heather Kampf, a University of Minnesota track legend, ran third in Saturday’s mile and came back with a runner-up 10:21.80 behind Houlihan’s winning 10:19.14 in Sunday’s two-mile test. Once again, the altitude was a handicap in addition to the absence of a “rabbit’’ to establish a faster early pace.
Houlihan had plenty left in the tank either day, pulling away in Saturday’s mile with a final 800 meters in 2:06.96 and then almost duplicated that with a 2:06.98 split to finish off Sunday’s two-mile success.
Even in Boston, running the mile more than 20 seconds faster, the daughter of Robert and Connie (Prince) Houlihan felt she might easily have done better.
“I was a little disappointed in the end, I just had too much (energy) left,’’ she said.
Less than seven months removed from her 11th-place 5,000-meter finish in Rio de Janeiro, this is still just the start for where Houlihan seems headed. Earning that berth in the Olympic finals, let alone simply making it to her sport’s biggest stage, came a full four years sooner than the goal she’d boldly established.
You’ve possibly heard the story, but it’s very much worth repeating.
“Going into the (U.S. Olympic) trials last year, I had written on the mirror, ‘I will be an Olympian,’ ‘’ Shelby reflects. “Seeing that and telling myself that every day made it seem like it could actually happen instead of just being this far-reaching goal.’’
By setting her sights on the 5,000, a race she’d rarely run through high school and college, she landed herself in an event completely dominated by runners from Kenya and Ethiopia. She continues to regard this as her rightful niche, but the last month’s progress in shorter races, where Americans have fared better internationally, could change the plan as she shoots for the Games of 2020 in Tokyo.
The improvement in her overall foot speed has certainly been evident in her first two assignments of what will be her first full year as a professional. That leads me to believe the objectives for three years hence aren’t carved in stone.
The only sure thing is that Houlihan will maintain her faith in a strategy she literally stumbled onto in 2013, running at the NCAA indoor nationals as an ASU sophomore.
“I was about halfway into the 800 (a preliminary heat) and the girl in front of me ran up on the girl in front of her and she fell,’’ recalled Shelby. “I had nowhere to go and I ended up falling, too. They should have advanced me, but they said they didn’t think I was in contention to make the final. I don’t know how they could make that call 400 meters into an 800.
“I was like, ‘I’m tired of being in the back (of the pack), I’m just going to go up to the front and lead. From then on, I started leading races and winning races. I don’t know if I’d have been able to win a national championship (1,500 in 2014) if that hadn’t happened. But everything comes together and kind of happens for a reason and you’ve got to take it for what it is.’’
She is certainly doing just that and we should all enjoy seeing what lies ahead.