Men's Track: Donn Cabral earns Olympics bid in Steeplechase
On Thursday evening, 14 athletes prepared for the 3,000m steeplechase final at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. In the middle of storied Hayward Field, filled with over 20,000 screaming fans, these competitors toed the starting line, carrying the hopes of their childhoods and the drive to compete on the world’s largest stage. There at the start with his friends and rivals, Donn Cabral ’12 waited for the chance to earn a ticket to the Olympic Games in London.
That pre-game wait fueled Cabral to a 2nd-place finish in the competition and secured a spot on the United States Olympic roster, capping one of the best athletic seasons of any Princetonian. But before he could take the podium, make plans for London, and sign a contract with Nike, Cabral first had to get over some pre-race butterflies.
“I was a little anxious before the race, but really, I was just kind of sick of being so focused on this one race and having so much anticipation. I just wanted it to be done and to know the result,” Cabral said. “Then, once I started warming up, it was all excitement. The nervousness wasn’t there so much anymore — I had arrived at race time.”After the starting gun cracked the tension, Ben Bruce took the lead, setting an honest, fast pace. Moving up into a good position, Cabral — the 2012 NCAA champion and American Collegiate record holder — stuck right on the leaders. Progressing through the seven-and-a-half-lap race, the pace began to heat up. Taking control from Bruce, Brian Olinger led the field through 1,200 meters and then surged to a 64.90-second fourth lap.
“I felt pretty good. I like to be up near the front of the pack, and I was able to find my way up there pretty early on,” Cabral said. “I feel like being up in the front allows me to see the race a little clearer and be a more active part of it, and be ready to cover moves.”Keeping the tempo hot with a little over three laps left, 2010 U.S. champion Dan Huling changed gears and eased past Olinger to start the push for the finish line with talented event newcomer Evan Jager in pursuit. Hanging on in fourth place, Cabral dug in to cover the move and maintain contact. As Huling, Jager, 2008 NCAA champion Kyle Alcorn and Cabral began to accelerate, the pack of four slowly separated from the rest of the field.
Fighting his way past Alcorn approaching the final lap, Cabral flew over the barriers and moved into third place. Only 400 meters remained between Cabral and the realization of his Olympic dream.
“That last lap was when things started to get really tough,” Cabral said. “The middle laps were hard, and I had to press for it, but it was really the last lap where it took some active, conscious work to push myself farther than I wanted to go.”
With each tick of the clock, Cabral’s strong, fluid strides ate up meters of track as he powered around the circuit. Pulling away from Alcorn, Cabral began to gain on Huling and Jager. Coming into the final turn, he blew by Huling and took command of second place. Driving over the final water jump and barriers, Cabral stayed on his feet, his path to the end clear.
As Cabral sprinted down the homestretch, the roar of the Hayward Field crowd followed him. Closing his last circuit in 62.64 seconds, Cabral crossed the line in 8 minutes, 19.81 seconds for second place. A few steps ahead of him, Jager finished in 8:17.40, while Alcorn closed hard for third in 8:22.17. With a spot in the top three secured, Cabral had earned the opportunity to represent the United States at the Olympic Games.
“I was just amazed it was happening," Cabral said. “I was in awe of the moment, and had complete respect of the magic of Hayward Field and the magic of the Olympics and the fact that I have a chance to be a part of it all.”
Cabral’s performance made him the first Princeton track athlete to qualify for the Olympics since Tora Harris ’02 competed in the high jump in Athens in 2004. For male distance runners, Cabral is the first Olympian since John Eisele 1906 won silver in the steeplechase and bronze in the three-mile at the 1908 Games, which were also held in London.
Those historic eight minutes of the steeplechase final were the last in a hard road for Cabral. Every step of the race was paid for by countless hours and miles of training on the track, roads and trails. Cabral slept in his altitude tent, simulating elevations of 12-13,000 feet, and fulfilled all of what he calls his “one-percenters” — plyometrics, weight training, ice baths and early morning runs — resulting in one of the greatest seasons for any Princeton athlete.
“I’m proud that the work that I’ve done over the year had put me where I am, given me the consistency over the season and given me the ability to have the success that I’ve had,” Cabral said. “I don’t think having a hard racing schedule is a detriment, but I think that being sharp for a long time is a difficult thing to pull off. Coach [Steve] Dolan and I have done a good job of doing that this year.”
After spending the 2011 summer in Park City, Utah, and training with the track team in Princeton over breaks, Cabral will finally have some time to spend at home before he prepares for the next chapter of his career in the coming months. But this time he will return home with something bigger than Ivy League titles, Penn Relays gold watches, his new Nike contract or even his Princeton diploma. Now, and forever, he is an Olympian.