Shelby Houlihan made it to the Olympics four years ahead of her original timetable.
Her relative inexperience in the 5,000-meter showed in the final Friday night at Olympic Stadium, where she ran in 12th-15th for much of the race before finishing 11th in 15 minutes, 8.89 seconds.
Courtney Jeff Metcalfe azcentral.com, Feature photo: Shelby Houlihan-SC East-ASU ©Michael Scott
The time was slower than her season best (15:06.14) but more than 10 seconds faster than she ran in the first round Tuesday.
Gold medalist Vivian Cheruiyot blew away the Olympic record by 14 seconds, winning 14:26.17 over fellow Kenyan Hellen Onsando. Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana was third.
“Ultimately I wanted to medal, but I knew that was maybe a really high goal,” said Houlihan, an Arizona State product. “I wanted to be top eight. I went out conservatively, which I felt really good about, then the gear changed and I tried to stay with that second pack. That last mile, I was just trying to hang on. I was struggling a bit (with a side cramp.)”
Houlihan won the NCAA 1,500 as a junior and nearly repeated as a senior while also finishing seventh in the 5,000. To make the Olympic final in her first year out of college, training with Bowerman Track Club in Portland, Ore., in an event she’s still learning is an accomplishment by any measure.
“I don’t have a great gauge as to how much I have left in the tank,” Houlihan said. “I feel really tired and it’s really a grind, but once I do switch that gear I get a second wind. I didn’t have that today. I was wheezing the entire last lap just trying to control my breath and stay calm and finish strong.”
Houlihan, 23, plans to race in Europe at distances from 800 to 3,000 meters for the rest of the year, then go back to work on the 5,000 with an aim to finish higher at the 2020 Olympics. No American has medaled in the women’s 5,000, first run in 1996.
“Things happen for a reason,” Houlihan said. “I didn’t place as high as I wanted to, and I’ve got to take that as a learning step and just try to move forward and make me stronger. I wouldn’t have guessed I’d be doing the 5K this year. Ideally I’d like to stick with it. Once I get the (mileage) volume up and get more aerobically strong, I’m going to be even more of a threat. I’m excited to see where that could take me.”
In the men’s 4×100 relay, Canada took a bronze medal behind Jamaica and Japan after the U.S. was disqualified for an illegal exchange.
Andre de Grasse, who trains with Altis in Phoenix, anchored the Canadian team to a national record 37.64, picking up his third medal to go with silver in the 200 and bronze in the 100.
Usain Bolt, running in what he says was his final Olympic race, anchored the Jamaicans to gold in 37.27, leaving him 9-for-9 in Olympic finals wins over three Games.
Bolt is tied with Finland’s Paavo Nurmi and American Carl Lewis for the most career Olympic track golds.