London 2012: For one moment, leading in London
“Even later I haven’t really gotten good at explaining what that final was like and how it felt. I mean, the coolest parts were walking out of the tunnel into the stadium before being introduced, and the stadium was just packed with people,” Cabral said. “Even the multi-time Olympians who had been in Sydney, Beijing or Athens were saying that they had never seen a stadium as electric, as packed, as into it as the stadium in London. That was a really amazing thing to walk out into.”
For Cabral, that night in London was a long way from collegiate competition in the NCAA. Nevertheless, Cabral knew that in the heat of the moment, after the gun cracks and the roar of the stadium fades into the background, it would be just another race.
“I approached the race knowing that I’ve been in races before that seemed like I was in over my head,” Cabral said. “But when it counts it seems like I can usually find a way to finish way above my seed and beat people with personal bests way better than mine. Even though my personal best was 8:19, I felt like I was in shape to run a lot faster than that if the pace dictated a fast race.”
If Cabral felt intimidated, it didn’t show as he broke hard off the starting line with the rest of the runners. Going right near the front, Cabral planned to race the same way he had in his successful run in the Olympic preliminary.
“The only thing I was really worried about going into the race was all the pushing and shoving that goes on in Olympic racing — particularly steeplechase,” Cabral said. “I made sure to get out front if the pace ended up slow, which it did.”
Being in front paid off for Cabral. He didn’t have to worry about getting pushed or boxed in or having to avoid pileups over barriers. He could look up, see the barriers clearly and carefully execute his crisp and efficient jumps.
“I had a good view of the track and could really think,” Cabral said. “I got to enjoy the race as it played out and also soak in the fact that I was leading the race in front of thousands of people. I rarely actually end up doing that in the middle of a race.”
Cabral was joined shortly by fellow American Evan Jager, and the two led the race together.
“With the two of us Americans in the field getting up to the front — even if leading doesn’t count for anything — it felt like an announcement that American steeplers are competing at the world level,” Cabral said. “It helped give me a boost and made the race seem a little more important.”
With less than half the race remaining, the Kenyans made a move for the podium and strung out the field. Staying in contact well into the race, Cabral fought his way to finish in eighth place — crossing the line in 8 minutes, 25.91 seconds. Less than eight seconds ahead, Kenyan Ezekiel Kemboi won gold in 8:18.56. Jager finished sixth.
“I think I ran a good race; I think it was where everything had pointed to,” Cabral said. “It wasn’t a result that really blew my mind, but it certainly didn’t disappoint me. I think I left the stadium that night feeling that it was an appropriate ending for a really good season.”
While Cabral knew that on the track the Olympic final was the same race he’s always run, off the track London gave him a far greater experience than any other meet he’d ever had. Staying in a four-person suite with track teammates Kyle Alcorn, Nick Symmonds and Cyrus Hostetler for the duration of the games, Cabral enjoyed much of what the Olympic Village had to offer — from free food to the company of many fellow athletes he admired.
“The famous people that I really wanted to see were mostly the people in the sport,” Cabral said. “I got to know a lot of them really well, and I met a lot of people that I really respect. But I didn’t take a picture with Michael Phelps.”
While Cabral mostly appreciated meeting stars such as 5,000m runner Bernard Lagat — a figure Cabral has looked up to since high school — he did manage to see some of the high-profile athletes.
“After my race I was cooling down with Evan Jager,” Cabral said, “and the basketball team walked through our warm-up track. Kobe Bryant looked at Evan and said, ‘Oh, I was checking you out out there. Nice race.’ I kind of gave him a hopeful look ... but he didn’t say anything; he just kept on walking. That was my celebrity moment.”
Away from the Village, Cabral found that being an Olympian has its perks. In cargo shorts and a T-shirt, Cabral, to his surprise, only needed to show his badge to be admitted to one of London’s finest clubs free of charge. Later on, after the closing ceremonies, Cabral was invited with the rest of Team USA to the red carpet premier of “The Expendables 2” where he had pictures taken with Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the rest of the cast. For Cabral, the whole Olympic atmosphere is still hard to get used to.
“I don’t know if [being an Olympian] has ever really hit me,” Cabral said. “It’s strange how people can get excited about meeting me, and all of a sudden now it’s something they’ll tell their friends about, or they ask for my autograph or a picture. To me I’m just the same person I always was.”
With the Olympics behind him, Cabral remained in Europe for a few weeks to travel and race, culminating in a third-place finish at the Birmingham Diamond League meet in England. Afterward, Cabral decided to finally end a dream season. Returning home to Connecticut, Cabral is resting and relaxing before he starts the next phase of his career.
Starting off his first full year as a professional runner, Cabral is moving in October to Bellingham, Wash., to train with his old high school track coach, Peter Oviatt. Under Oviatt in high school, Cabral developed much of the foundation for becoming the runner he is today.
In Bellingham, Oviatt coaches a club team as well as at a local college. However, Cabral will most likely work out individually.
“It might be difficult because I won’t have any training partners,” Cabral said. “But I do have all the faith in the world in him as a coach.”
Whether in Washington or Princeton, as a high school teenager or as an elite Olympian, running is the same as it always was to Cabral. It is a journey to test the limits of his abilities, to push himself to the brink and beyond. For him, it’s to pursue what he loves and turn what once seemed like dreams into reality.