After placing second in the steeplechase at the NCAA Championships the last two years, Princeton University distance star Donn Cabral knew he was the hunted one as he competed in the national collegiate meet last weekend.
“I was confident but between Craig Florys of Michigan, Cory Leslie of Ohio State, the Indiana contingent, and Henry Lelei of Texas A & M, there were a lot of runners who wanted to take a shot at me,” said the recently-graduated Cabral. “I was ready to put up a fight.”
Cabral proved to be up to the fight, pulling away for the win last Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa as he posted a time of 8:35.44 for the 3,000-meter event with Florys second in 8:40.66.
In the process, the Glastonbury, Conn. native completed an undefeated season in the event and earned Princeton’s third outdoor National Championship. It was the first crown for a Tiger since Tora Harris won the 2002 high jump, and is the first individual track national title since 1934 when William Bonthron won the mile.
In reflecting on his landmark victory, Cabral was pleased with how he executed under pressure.
“The race plan was sit on the leader and run 70 or 69 second laps which is a comfortable steeplechase pace,” explained Cabral
“With a third of the race to go, I wanted to make a move and spread things out and see if they wanted to run with me. Then I had to hold my focus to the finish. I was really happy with it. Once I started to make a move, my first lap was faster than the next. I wanted it to be a decisive move; I wanted the other people to hurt.”
While Cabral has bigger goals this summer with the summer Olympics on the horizon, he recognizes the importance of the NCAA breakthrough.
“All year I have been telling myself that the Olympic Trials is the race I want to win,” said Cabral, referring to the U.S. Olympic trials which are taking place in Eugene, Ore. from June 21-July 1 with the men’s steeplechase final slated for June 28 and the top three finishers earning a trip to the London Games.
“But I haven’t ever done this. I was the runner-up the last two years. It isn’t an easy thing to do.”
In order to get the national title, Cabral has put in a lot of hard work. “Over the past few years, I been working out at a 5k pace and using a few hurdles,” said Cabral.
“This year, I have done more work with hurdles and I have been training at faster than steeplechase speed.”
In mid-May, Cabral displayed his speed, setting an American college record of 8:19.14 as he won the steeplechase in the Oxy High Performance Meet at Occidental College.
“That was the biggest confidence builder but there was still a ways to go before the trials and can I keep it going,” said Cabral, who also gained confidence from helping Princeton to wins in the distance medley and 4xmile relays at the Penn Relays in April. “It is good to know I can run an 8:19. I will probably need to run that in the trials.”
While Cabral went on to win the 10,000 and the steeplechase at the Outdoor Ivy League Heptagonal Championships later in May, he wasn’t at his fastest.
“I did get two wins but not the times I had hoped for,” said Cabral. “Completing the triple crown [winning Heps titles in cross country, indoor, and outdoor track] for the team was the big thing. It was less about personal goals and more about team goals.”
Over his Princeton years, Cabral has experienced personal growth away from the track.
“I am such a different person,” said Cabral, who graduated from Princeton on June 5 and was one of five 2012 winners of the William Winston Roper Trophy, the top award for senior male athletes.
“I am more comfortable with who I am. I am more comfortable with my nerdy side. I am a little better at managing time with school work and taking care of things outside of track.”
Cabral is looking to make the most of his time between now and the Olympic Trials, planning to train in Princeton until June 20 and then working out in Portland, Ore. in the days before the steeplechase competition.
“The plan is to be as sharp and fast as possible; the way that has happened for me is with decent workouts,” said Cabral.
“I have been going out slow in the starts of steeplechases and then making a big kick. I want to get into steeplechase pace right off the start. I want to have the finishing speed and the turnover of a miler.”
In order to make the Olympic team, Cabral knows he needs to be sharp mentally.
“I don’t think you can go into this looking to be in the top three; you have to be going in there with the idea of competing for the win,” said Cabral.
“I think that is important; it is bad to go in with a negative focus and thinking you just need to be in the top three. It is much easier to go out there and tell yourself to run for first and not settle for anything else.”