The Next Level Iowa: Faith “The Houlihan Sisters”

Shelby and Shayla Houlihan

“Sister Acts” by Shelby and Shayla Houlihan

Over the years there have been a number of sister “acts” with Iowa preps and former Iowa preps.   We could make a very long list of such talented siblings, buit I would hate to leave anyone out.  One of the “sister acts” that is going strong right now is “The Houlihan Sister’s”

Shelby is the states All time prep record holder in the 800 meters, 2:07.35.  She won the 4A Cross Country title in 2010 and the 800, 1500 and 3000 at last springs state track meet.  She started off her freshman year at Arizona State this past fall, by being named the Pac-12 Cross Country Newcomer of the Year and followed that up with a fine indoor season.  Her freshman outdoor campaign is off to a good start as well.  She opened up with a win in the 800 this past weekend.

Shayla Houlihan, on the other hand, has been a “late bloomer” compared to Shelby.  I have asked both young ladies to put together a short autobiography, telling us about their careers.  How did they get to where they are today?  What were some of the bumps along the way?  Along with the good and rewarding times.  The following is Shayla’s version of her running career biography.  Shelby’s will be available soon.
Shayla, thank you so much for sharing!

For those of you that don’t know me, you’re probably asking yourself, “is she any relation to Shelby Houlihan?” the answer is yes, she is my sister. This brings me to my high school track and field days where I didn’t see anything close to the amount of success as my baby sister. This would be by my own stubborn choice; though my coaches and parents tried pushing me towards excellence in running I was not interested yet. I was involved heavily in everything from band to choir to student council to mayor’s youth commission. Not only was I just involved but I dove in deep: student council president, flag corps. Captain, trying out for honors choirs, etc. as you can imagine this left little time for running. My senior year was the only year I qualified for the Iowa State meet in the 3,000 meters. I finished dead last. Drake stadium somewhat haunted me. Little did I know I’d be spending a lot of time there in the next 8 years of my life.

Off to college I went the fall of 2003. I had decided on the University if Northern Iowa because it “felt right”. I had been to campus numerous times on student council trips so it felt like home away from home.

There were no plans for me to run in college but in the back of my mind I wondered if I could make it as a walk on to a Division I program. My brother challenged me to “just give it a try for a week; you can always quit “. I did so, knowing I would never quit something once I’d made the commitment. My first run with the women was a long hill workout. I hung on. Each day I got dropped on runs. I’d have to walk at or before 30 minutes. My long run days (8 miles) would take a toll on me for the rest of the day. I was a mess! My freshman and sophomore year was tough, trying to build mileage I had never in my life come close to doing, going to class as a full time student, being away from home for the first time. I wanted to give up but I couldn’t let my family down. Coach Kepler kept encouraging me. Sophomore year I saw glimpses of success in between stress fractures. I ran my first steeplechase that Spring. I had found an event that was terrifyingly enjoyable. I knew deep down inside I could be good. It wasn’t until the fall of my Junior year when I got a stress fracture in my femur that I said enough is enough. I wanted to see how good I could be. The heartache of getting fit and getting injured was frustrating. So I started taking care of myself. I came out swinging my last year at Northern Iowa. I was smart, I was dropping times in each event by 10-20 seconds and I was confident this would be the case in my following 5th year of eligibility but coaches at the time weren’t quite confident that would keep true based on my history of injury. I was done with my undergrad degree so running a 5th year was trivial.

While looking at Graduate school, I knew I wanted to explore life beyond Iowa so I contacted coach Kepler at the University of Utah (he had taken the head coaching job there after my sophomore year). Once again he was ready to take a chance on me and give me an opportunity to be a Ute. I visited, loved the Health Promotion and Education Department and basically fell in love with Utah! I finished out my final year of eligibility with a 30 second PR in the steeplechase this qualified me for the NCAA Regional meet. Once again I was dead last.

I decided to keep running. Being the graduate assistant coach for the team made it easy for me to keep running and see if I could be as good as my next personal record. That first year we saw great things happening in practices. I ran 10:30 early in the season then saw my season crumble because of a bad cold that left my lungs aching for months. Kep and I committed to yet one more year. I was done with grad school going into 2010; making my focus on coaching, working and running. I built mileage, I continued to train healthy going on my 4th year, I dialed in on my strength training; I slept (a lot). My life changed that year. I lived to survive for the next day’s workout. It wasn’t glamorous; it was just exactly what I needed to propel me to be one of the top steeplechasers in the nation.

In Early January we figured out that training was going better than planned. We were now aware that the U.S. indoor championships were a realistic goal, and maybe not just qualifying for the U.S. Outdoor championships but to do well there and make the final. I went on this year to post personal bests in every event I touched and place 6th in the nation in both the 3k indoors and steeplechase outdoors. I was having fun with it. People saw, people knew. I was doing what I love to do every single day of my life!

  Brooks contacted me along with a couple of other shoe companies about representing their company. I liked what Brooks’ vision for their company was. I loved their shoes and what they stood for. I signed a professional running contract with them a few days before the 2010 Outdoor championships. I quickly developed a couple of different support systems on top of the ones I already had.

Brooks signed a handful of women at the same time and we became instant friends and teammates. My agency, Charisma Sports has been another wonderful resource and support system the past 2 years. I’ve had the opportunity to race over seas for 2 years now. Last year was a tough year, I made a coaching change, moved to Flagstaff, Arizona and got injured. Thanks to Dr. John Ball(an Iowa Prep as well, now living in Phoenix, AZ) for piecing me back together. I was able to pull myself together and muster out a steeplechase personal best in early July once I switched up my training and started coaching myself with the guidance of coach Kepler.

2012 has gone off without a hitch. I’m so thankful and excited to be on the track every opportunity I get. Track access is close to non-existent in Flagstaff. There are 4 of the best all weather tracks at 7,000 ft that I’ve ever seen. They are locked up and not available to the public. This has made training especially hard here. Fortunately, coach Kepler has been able to set “track” workouts during races this past indoor season. It’s been fun to switch up training we’ve done in the past because I’m constantly evolving as an athlete but yet keep it all very similar to what we know works for me. I was able to try all sorts of race tactics during the indoor season and I know it will help going into the outdoor season. At the US Indoor Championships a few weeks ago I took 5th place in the 3,000 meters, my highest finish at a national championship. I then came back the next day and ran the 1500 to get another good track session in.

With outdoor season upon us my real focus gets a jump start. The steeplechase is that event I feel like home in. I keep coming back for more because it’s where I feel at ease. I am one of a handful of women that already have the “A” qualifier (9:55 or faster) for the U.S.A. trials at the end of June. This means I will be competing for a spot on the Olympic team. During this outdoor season I will be chasing the Olympic “A” standard; I am within 10 seconds of doing so. This is a standard I must meet in order to compete at the Olympics, vying I’m in the top 3 at the trials of course.

Wow, taking a step back, looking and talking about where I’ve come from and how I’ve developed into a professional athlete in one of the hardest sports to be sustainable in is a little mind-boggling. I’m so grateful for all these great opportunities that have been placed before me. I try to daily take advantage and be the best I can be to become the best in the nation and eventually the world.