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Alumni Update: Shelby Houlihan Feeling Great with Eyes on Tokyo in 2021

Dec 15, 2020

Women's Track and Field Indoor All-Americans | Sun Devil Women's Track and Field Postseason Finishes | Women's Outdoor All-Americans | Arizona State Pac-12 Major Awards History (All Sports)

By Griffin Fabits, ASU Class of 2021

Shelby Houlihan is, for what feels to be the first time ever, running with confidence.

It's a feeling that's evaded her for much of her career, a steady mindset she's yet to conquer.

But when you've had a year like Houlihan, the former ASU cross country star who's jettisoned up world rankings and is expected to make a splash at next summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo, an influx in confidence seems only natural.

It was her time as a Sun Devil that helped her unlock this.

"I feel like [ASU] set me up perfectly for a professional career," Houlihan, a 2015 graduate, said. "Honestly, it was the best decision I felt that I made for myself. I loved every year there and loved my experience."

A four-year Sun Devil career, one that teemed with accolades and broken records, has parlayed into fast success at the world level. Just one year after graduating from ASU, Houlihan competed in the first Olympic Games of her career in 2016, finishing in 11th place at the 5000-meter race in Rio.


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Shelby Houlihan, 2014
Amy Hastings, 2004
Lisa Aguilera, 2000
Shelby Houlihan, 2011
Ali Kielty, 2006
Jessica Scalzo, 2002

She holds the American record for the 5000m event, finishing it in 14:23.92 at an event this summer in Oregon. She was part of the relay team that broke the 1500-meter national record weeks later.

She set an ASU school record for the 1500m in 2015, holds the No. 2 time in program history for the 5000m and won a national title in 2014 in the 1500m event.

Now training for the 2021 Olympics, she's doing so with a newfound belief in her abilities.

"Going into this year, I feel totally different," she said. "Hopefully the stars align. I'm healthy, I'm ready to go, I'm fit.

"I've already proven to myself that I can compete at a world-level and be in the mix."

Houlihan is listed at No. 8 in the world rankings in the 1500m event, and once boasted a top-three ranking that lasted for 11 consecutive weeks, according to

The more events she runs, the better the athletes she competes with, the more Houlihan learns about herself. In 2016 at Rio, she was starstruck, just content with being there and rubbing shoulders with the world's best.

She's found a new tone now.

"In 2016, I was an entirely different athlete. I had just come out of college. I was still new to the professional world and racing at a world-level. I didn't really have any confidence in myself at a world-level. I was just happy to be there and just trying to do my best. I felt like I did, felt like 11th place was as good as I maybe could've done on the day.

"Now, I feel totally different. I want to make that Olympic team. I want to get to Tokyo and be contending for a gold medal. I feel like I'm capable of doing that."

Houlihan is a six-year professional now, having run all over the world in a multitude of different events on the sport's biggest stages.

This Olympic dream was born in her hometown of Sioux City, Iowa, but it began to unfold in Tempe, as a member of the Sun Devils' track and field program and under the tutelage of coaches Louie Quintana and Ryan Cole.

Houlihan visited Arizona State in 2012, just as the Olympic Trials were happening. Quintana pointed to the trials, and told Houlihan this program would provide the blueprint to getting her there.

She was sold.

"Him saying that, I was like, 'Yeah, we're on the same page.' This was someone who wanted the same things for myself as I did and saw that I was capable of potentially doing those things."

Houlihan should've raced this summer in Tokyo, had it not been for the postponement of the Olympics due to COVID-19. Instead, she'll try to qualify for the games next June.

Plans change sometimes. Instead, she ran in several races over the summer that adhered to socially-distanced measures. Hardly has changed in her preparation for next summer. She's training as she would in any other year, ramping up her regimen week-by-week.

But finally, finally, she's doing it confidently.

"I can run with these women," she said, no longer trying to convince herself and instead believing in the process that got her here.

"I can beat a lot of these women and hopefully I can have my day and if the stars align, I can maybe walk away with a gold medal.


Shelby Houlihan, 2015
Charonda Williams, 2009
Shelby Houlihan, 2012
Charonda Williams, 2008
Jacquelyn Johnson, 2004