Breaking hesitantly off of the line after the gun went off for the men’s 3,000m steeplechase at the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday, the runners cautiously shuffled around the track, with no one eager to seize the lead. Stringing off moderately paced 70-second laps, the 14-man pack waited for someone to make the first big move. Lurking just off the front for the first mile of the race, senior Donn Cabral bided his time. With just over three laps to go, just as the tension began to rise, the American Collegiate Record holder quickly and quietly switched gears and slammed to the front.
“We were going moderately slow for the beginning … I figured I’d play my cards with about 1,000 meters to go,” Cabral said. “The longer and harder the kick, the more you take luck out of the picture. I trusted my fitness, and I really wanted to win, so I went for it a little before most people were probably expecting.”
Striding out over the barriers, Cabral immediately strung out the field, daring them to try to stick with him as he dropped the pace down to 65-second quarter-miles. Only Henry Lelei of Texas A&M managed to go with Cabral, as the two quickly gapped the chase pack by several meters.
As the bell rang out for the final lap, Cabral accelerated even further and broke away from the Kenyan junior. Bounding smoothly over the last water jump, Cabral powered down the final straightaway to his first national title. Cabral closed his final lap in 63.43 seconds to finish at 8:35.44, beating the rest of the field by over five seconds.
“Once I knew I had it, I was just so happy. Even though the big thing this year is the Olympics and making it to the Olympics, I realized then that this was something I’ve never done – it’s something not many people get to do,” Cabral said. “I was just really enjoying those last 50 meters, where all I had to do was stay on my feet, make it to the finish line and get that title that I’ve been wanting for two years.”
The victory made Cabral Princeton’s first NCAA track and field champion since Tora Harris ’02 won the high jump in 2002, and the first runner since William Bonthron ’34 won the mile in 1934.
Cabral did not travel to Des Moines alone. In one of Princeton’s greatest NCAA showings ever, five more Tigers competed on the nation’s highest stage.
Riding a wave of excitement that had been building since her first Ivy League title in May, junior Greta Feldman broke out in a major way at the eastern NCAA regional meet. In the 1,500m in Jacksonville, Feldman ran a personal-best 4:15.00 to win the race and set a new school record. And she showed that was only the beginning, as in her preliminary heat in Des Moines, Feldman churned a 63.61-second last lap to finish third at 4:12.73, ensuring her place in the final round.
“Racing well at regionals gave me a lot of confidence going into nationals,” Feldman said. “At that point I was like, ‘I’m here, I made it, I have something to show for myself – I can compete with these girls.’ I was kind of riding that high going into nationals, definitely.”
Toeing the line for the championship race Saturday afternoon, Feldman started off well and quickly established herself in a good position near the front of the pack. Yet as the pace slowed, Feldman found herself slipping back as other impatient runners crowded by on the outside. When the women up front began to race with 600 meters to go, Feldman found herself with work to do.
Moving up over the final lap, Feldman powered home over the last 200 meters. Kicking hard down the home stretch, she continued to pick up speed and places as she finally crossed the line in 4:14.76 for fifth place, earning All-America honors for the first time.
“I was very happy to make it to that stage, and getting fifth place is obviously just a huge honor. If you would have told me that a year ago, I would have been shocked,” Feldman said. “At the end of every race you’re always going to find things you think you could have done better, but overall I’m just very, very pleased with how it went.”
For Feldman, the 2012 outdoor season has been a dream season, with her All-America award the latest in a spring that has seen her claim Princeton records in the 800m and 1,500m and a Heps title.
“It’s something that I thought could happen and that I was hoping would happen,” Feldman said. “But it’s one of those things where, until it actually comes to fruition, it’s still pretty out there – a little out of your reach but still attainable. I knew I could, but actually getting there was tough and unpredictable.”
Still, Feldman’s dramatic season is not over with the NCAA Championships. Her time of 4:12.73 in the preliminary round is an automatic qualifier for the Olympic Trials, where she will join Cabral.
Continuing the string of first team All-America successes, sophomore Damon McLean exploded onto the national scene in the triple jump. Finally aligning things on his third attempt, McLean flew 52 feet, 7.25 inches to place eighth overall. The first triple jumper in Princeton’s history to clear 16 meters, McLean erased the old school record set by Ugwunna Ikpeowo ’96 in 1994.
Rounding out the Tiger contingent, seniors Trevor Van Ackeren, Joe Stilin and Brian Leung closed out their Princeton careers with second-team All-America showings.
Kicking off the meet for Princeton on Wednesday evening, Leung competed in the championship 10,000m. Hanging in toughly for the hard and hot race, Leung crossed the line in 29:58.45 to finish in 16th place. The race capped a remarkable comeback season, as the senior managed to return from a long injury struggle in time to make it to his first outdoor championships.
In the 1,500m, Van Ackeren ran 3:42.83 to narrowly miss making the final by a tenth of second. Despite blitzing the final lap in 55.80 seconds, Van Ackeren finished sixth in his heat, and only the top five are assured to qualify for the next round. Nevertheless, Van Ackeren’s efforts placed him 14th overall, earning his first second-team All-America honors.
Competing in the 5,000m Friday evening, Stilin closed the final chapter of a truly unbelievable senior season for the Tigers. Running hard in a stellar field in the sultry Iowan weather, Stilin hung near the top of the pack for most of the race before fading over the last mile. He ground out the rest of the race before kicking to finish in 14th place, stopping the clock at 14:03.76. While the performance fell slightly below his expectations, simply being in the national final and garnering second team All-America accolades demonstrated how far the senior has come from only qualifying for the NCAA regional meet last year.
Ever since Cabral and his classmates decided during their summer training in Park City, Utah, that this year would be their year, the Tigers have exceled. With a multitude of All-America performances, school and Ivy League records, Penn Relays titles and Ivy League championships, this year has been one of the program’s finest.
“This has been a great year, one of the best in Princeton’s history. Things like all the big wins and records on the individual and team scale don’t get achieved just by great runners and athletes – they get achieved by a team that has a culture where everyone wants to be one of those guys and a part of one of those victories,” Cabral said. “We all have that attitude where everyone wants to be one of the guys doing something big. Because of that, so many guys have achieved it.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/06/13/31029/