Men's Track: After setting collegiate record, Cabral prepares for NCAAs, Trials
With 1,600 meters left in the 3,000m steeplechase at the OXY High Performance meet in California on May 18, senior Donn Cabral started to move. Already on personal record pace, Cabral inched up the tempo as he broke away from the chase pack and began to slowly close the gap on the race’s leaders, professional runners Dan Huling and Evan Jager. Sailing over the barriers and water jumps with ease and efficiency, Cabral slowly and steadily crept toward the lead.
“It was faster than I’d ever started out running in the steeple before, but I felt comfortable,” Cabral said. “I didn’t feel like I was overexerting or running any faster or harder than I should have been at that point in the race.”
With just over two laps left in the race, Cabral finally made contact, settling in behind Huling and Jager. He didn’t stay comfortable for long. Meters later, Jager took the lead and hit the gas, quickly starting to pull away.
“Jager had put almost 10 meters on me, and I don’t think it was because I was hurting so badly, but rather because I haven’t had to deal with that in a while,” Cabral said. “I haven’t had to deal with someone trying to break me and then having to fight through it.”
Regrouping, Cabral upped the intensity as he and Huling fought on in pursuit of Jager. Rolling through 2,600 meters in 7 minutes, 17 seconds, Cabral left all traces of his former self behind as he surged forward, 10 seconds faster than his personal best pace. Barring a disaster, the Olympic A standard of 8:23.10 was his.
“I remember hearing with half a lap to go 7:45 or something like that, and knowing that even if I kept the same speed I’d run a great time, a huge PR and an Olympic A standard,” Cabral said. “But I felt that I could really pick it up. It was exciting — I was waiting to really try to make a big move and go for the win.”
Jager took a false step before the final water jump and took a nose dive into the water pit. Seizing the opportunity, Cabral and Huling came hurtling to the front. Cabral changed gears and drove down the home stretch, flying over the final barrier and into the lead. Telescoping away in the final meters, Cabral powered through the line to win in 8:19.14. The phenomenal time nipped the old American Collegiate record of 8:19.27, which was set by Farley Gerber of Weber State in 1984, and shattered the Princeton and Ivy League records.
“It was a lot of fun, that’s really just what it was. It was an exciting race to be a part of — I didn’t have to kill myself to get the win, and I felt fast coming down the home stretch,” Cabral said. “That’s really just what’s fun for me — feeling light on my feet, feeling quick, beating people, accomplishing more than what I expected. It was more than anything I could have hoped for, and I was just really enjoying the moment.”
While Cabral’s previous personal best was 8:32, he had just been waiting for the right breakout race. Continuing to ride the wave of success from the Penn Relays and the Ivy League championships, Cabral knew from his workouts he was capable of something much, much faster.
“If I knew ahead of time going into the race that I would run 8:19, I would have believed it, I would have thought that it was possible,” Cabral said. “But knowing it’s possible and knowing you’ve done it are hugely different. It was still very unexpected to actually have done it, no matter how much I’ve told myself that I had a chance.”
With the fastest time of any American runner so far this season, Cabral sent a message out to the rest of the nation just as the NCAA championship season begins. A two-time runner-up in the steeplechase, Cabral hopes to finally capture an NCAA title before his time at Princeton ends.
Racing in the East Regional meet this past weekend, Cabral qualified for the championship meet on June 6–9 in Des Moines, Iowa. Classmates Joe Stilin, Brian Leung and Trevor Van Ackeren, as well as sophomores Damon McLean and Conor McCullough, also advanced to the national championship. For Cabral, the NCAA final will be yet another test before the Olympic Trials at the end of June.
With just over a month before the big showdown to make the Olympic team, Cabral is more focused than ever. In the wake of his new American Collegiate record and victory over many of the nation’s fastest steeplers, what once seemed like a dream just became very real.
“Having the workouts and killing practice every day is hard, but when you’re having that much fun and success, it really makes things easier,” Cabral said. “Knowing that all of a sudden making the Olympic team is within grasp, that it’s a reasonable goal now, makes having training point toward the Trials easier.”
If Cabral keeps grinding on toward his goals, with luck he just may find himself crossing the finish line, arms punched toward the sky once more.