East High School Alum Shayla Houlihan Coaches Cross Country at University of California, Santa Barbara

Sioux City, Iowa - Miles may separate Shayla Houlihan from where her dreams began, but the East High School alum has never been intimidated by distance.

A professional runner and collegiate cross country coach, Houlihan has made a name for herself in the world of running. Her commitment to the sport started as a student-athlete at East High, where she cherished the opportunities to get involved.

“I feel like I was able to really explore what I wanted to do in life, and I was never forced into having a narrow focus too early in life,” says Houlihan. “The activities offered to me were so special. To be able to have exposure to student council, band, choir, cross country, and track – all at the same time – is such a rarity these days.”

When she wasn’t participating in extracurricular activities, Houlihan focused on her studies.

“I didn’t always love the academic side of things, but my teachers kept me engaged enough to learn that getting an education is very important for my overall development as a human,” says Houlihan.

After graduation, Houlihan attended the University of Northern Iowa, where she ran track and cross country while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. She later received a Master of Science in health promotion and education at the University of Utah and ran for a fifth track season, setting a new school record in the 3000m steeplechase.  

“Utah was where I also started to coach at the collegiate level and then went on to become a professional runner leading into the 2012 Olympic team trials,” says Houlihan, who retired after placing 22nd in the Olympic trials.

Houlihan moved to California, finding her sweet spot as a coach for the men’s and women’s cross country teams at the University of California, Berkeley. There, she coached several All American athletes and took two men’s teams and one women’s team to the NCAA cross country nationals. After seven years, her journey continued to Flagstaff, Arizona, where Houlihan started Dark Sky Distance, a professional running team.

For the last year and a half, Houlihan has coached at the University of California, Santa Barbara, making strides with both the men’s and women’s track and field and cross country teams. The men’s team won the Big West Conference title, and Houlihan earned Coach of the Year honors. This year, Houlihan’s men’s team placed second and her women’s team tied for fourth place.

“Anything is possible, any dream achievable if you commit to it,” adds Houlihan. “No one believed I’d become a professional runner, and no one believed I’d reach the levels I have reached in my coaching career. Some goals take longer to achieve than others but you can absolutely get there.”