Track & Field: Princeton takes pair of titles at Penn Relays
Cruising in fourth, senior co-captain Donn Cabral easily kept pace with the moving trio. Following strong opening legs by sophomore Michael Williams, senior Joe Stilin and senior Trevor van Ackeren, Cabral was right up in the mix, perfectly positioned in the lead pack.
“I was feeling OK, but I was probably about six meters off the lead. A consistently hard pace should be what is best for me, as I’m a strength-based runner, and it’s the long, drawn-out, consistent races that I do best in,” Cabral said. “Once I got to about three-quarters of the race and still felt good, I realized that this race was just going to be a sit-and-kick.”
Entering the final lap, the bell rang out as Cabral started to move. Wasting no time, he swung around Alexander and began to power down the backstretch in pursuit of Merber and Bayer. Inching his way past Bayer around the final turn, Cabral drifted out into the second lane as he clawed his way up to Merber. Cabral let loose as he exploded off of the curve, pushing hard to blow by Merber. Burning down the final straightaway, Cabral only put more distance between himself and the rest of the field before throwing his arms up in raw emotion as he crossed the finish line — having run 3 minutes, 59.9 seconds to seal Princeton’s 16:16.79 win and new school record.
“I don’t know how I felt,” Cabral said. “We were all just struggling to believe that it really had happened. We knew we could do it, but as confident as we were in our ability, there were six other teams out there at the start thinking that the title was all theirs.”
The victory made Princeton a back-to-back champion, after the Tigers won the Penn Relays’ longest event last year as well. However, this year, Princeton didn’t go home with only a single Penn victory wheel. For the Tigers, the fireworks had already started a day before the gun went off for the 4xMile.
Competing in the distance medley relay on Friday afternoon, Stilin set the tone as he led the Princeton squad off. Maintaining a good position in the jostling pack, Stilin stayed relaxed through the first 800 meters. Coming up on 400 meters to go, Stilin suddenly made the decision to drop the hammer and broke away from the top-class field. Driving over the final 200 meters, Stilin opened a gap on the rest of the teams before handing off to sophomore sprinter Tom Hopkins.
Hopkins tore around the track in 46.3 seconds and maintained the advantage before trading the stick to Williams. Running strongly over the opening 400 meters, Williams left the other teams struggling to catch up with him. Splitting 1:51.4, Williams kept the Tigers in the hunt as the race turned to the final stage.
With no one eager to take the lead, relay anchor Cabral found himself forced to the front of the race. While the other anchors sat behind him waiting to pounce, Cabral calmly proceeded to set a comfortable tempo. As the pace dawdled over the middle laps, more and more teams gradually caught up with the front pack. With no fewer than eight teams bunched and vying for the title going into the final lap, the tension was thick. Yet as runner after runner tried to take the lead, Cabral kept pushing all challengers aside, refusing to be overtaken.
“As I started to feel better, I picked it up more and more,” Cabral said. “I kind of like to think of it as playing defense. As people started trying to make moves and pass me, I would put little boosts in to try to keep them off.”
Gaining momentum, Cabral kept his foot on the gas as the pace escalated until, with 200 meters to go, the senior was at an all-out sprint. Not even a true miler, Cabral did the seemingly impossible, as he inched away from the rest of the stellar field of 800m and 1,500m specialists. Charging over the last few meters, Cabral finally burst through the line, stopping the clock for Princeton in 9:42.45.
“There were 50,000 people in the stands, and almost all of them do not think of Princeton as one of the best programs in the country,” Cabral said. “Only the people who really know collegiate distance running realize what we’ve got. Just to shock the world like that was amazing.”
While easy to overlook in the shadow of Princeton’s two spectacular relays, the Tigers’ fire spread to different areas of the men’s and women’s track teams as well. Competing in the triple jump, sophomore Damon McLean had a breakout performance, as he bounded and leapt to a massive 52-foot, 1.25-inch horizontal jump. A new personal best, the mark propelled McLean to number two in the Princeton record books. McLean’s second-place finish at Penn showed that he has finally positioned himself amongst the nation’s best.
Also seeing success on the women’s side, the foursome of sophomore Carrie Vuong, senior Eileen Moran, senior Joie Hand and freshman Cecilia Barowski ran 3:41.07 in the 4x400m to place first in the Ivy League section, before coming back to run an even faster 3:40.39 and win the ECAC championship two days later. Both times shattered the old record of 3:42.37, which was set in 1982.
Running in the distance medley, sophomores Molly Higgins and Kacie O’Neil, junior Greta Feldman and senior Danielle Glaeser nearly set another program record. After Higgins, Glaeser and O’Neill kick-started the race strongly, Feldman grabbed the stick and got to work. Covering the final 1,600m leg in 4:38.70, Feldman crossed the line in 11:13.40, just a little under a second shy of the program record of 11:12.53 set in 2006. Competing against some of the best distance schools in the country, Princeton placed fifth, with Feldman running the fastest 1,600m split of the field.
Entering last spring, Princeton had not won a Penn Relays title since 1940, but it has decisively entered a new era of prominence on the national stage. Achieving a rare feat not even managed by most powerhouse track programs, the Tigers became the first Ivy League team to complete a Championship of America relay double since Yale in 1961.
“I think it starts with great coaching. Eventually that great coaching leads to a change in team culture. It starts bringing in guys who are excited to try for more and do it on the college scene,” Cabral said. “The team changed so much from my freshman year to my senior year, and I can’t imagine a more motivated, fun group of guys than what we’ve got right now.”