Donn Cabral dominated the competition this spring in the steeplechase.
During the course of his final season with the Princeton University track team, Cabral cruised to victory in the 3,000-meter event at the Ivy League Heptagonal Outdoor Championships and then won the 2012 USATF Oxy High Performance Meet clocking an American college record of 8:19.14.
Saving his best for last, Cabral won the steeplechase title at the NCAA Championships on June 9 as he competed in his final college race wearing the orange and black. It was the program’s first outdoor national championship since Tora Harris won the 2002 high jump and was the first individual track national champion since 1934 when William Bonthron won the mile.
But when Cabral uncharacteristically failed to finish at the head of the pack at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., it wasn’t cause for disappointment.
The Glastonbury, Conn. native took second in the final, booking his spot on the U.S. team for the upcoming London Olympics.
As Cabral prepared for his shot at making the Olympics, he struggled in training after his NCAA triumph.
“At first it was pretty disappointing, I was starting to question how much was left in my legs after the season,” said Cabral.
“I didn’t have the spring and pop in my legs. I concentrated on resting and staying off my feet when I wasn’t training.”
A few days prior to the competition in Eugene, Cabral headed to Portland and started to feel himself again.
“We stayed there and my legs were feeling good again,” said Cabral. “I was supposed to do a workout with 45-46 second 300 meter reps and I was running them in 41. It felt pretty good, it was a sign that the spring was back in my legs.”
In the preliminary round, Cabral took care of business, clocking a time of 8:30.64 to finish second in his heat and easily qualify for the final.
“My plan was to be up front near the leaders, get close enough to qualify and then run for the win,” recalled Cabral. “I had a little difficulty getting to the front. I was moving up on the last lap and I passed a lot of guys at the end.”
As Cabral looked ahead to the final, he knew he had to pick it up and probably run near his personal best to get in the top three and ensure his place for the London Games.
“I didn’t know if I had an 8:19 in me; I thought I could be close to that,” said Cabral.
“I wasn’t sure if I was better or just maintaining the speed I had. I wanted to do a better job of getting to the front. I wanted to run the first 150 meters fast instead of just the first 100.”
Following that blueprint, Cabral ran with the lead pack and then picked off everyone but winner Evan Jager.
“I did a good job of staying near the front for the rest of the race,” said Cabral, who clocked a time of 8:19.81 with Jager just ahead in 8:17.40.
“There were never too many people in front of me. I let the space go a little too much between Kyle [Alcorn], Evan, and me. I was closing the gap between me and the leaders but one hurdle threw me off and I lost a little space on Evan.”
Rounding the last curve, Cabral was able to enjoy the moment and his achievement.
“I was just thinking I was really happy to get second place,” said Cabral, the first Princeton track athlete to make the Olympics since Harris competed in the 2004 Athens Summer Games.
“On the last water jump, I knew I had it. I was soaking it all in and enjoying the last 100 meters. At the finish, I was thinking oh my god it has finally happened, the thing I have been thinking about for the last year and a half and my dream since I was a child.”
Now Cabral will be chasing more dreams as he competes in London with the preliminary round to take place on August 3 and the final slated for two days later.
“I think it is a very reasonable goal to make the final,” said Cabral, who is heading to Italy this week to train and compete in some races on the European circuit.
“I want to take the preliminaries as the biggest races of my life and give it all I have got. Getting a medal is not really a goal; it is more of a dream. It is something that may be more realistic in the future.”
Cabral sees a bright future for American steeplechasing. “I do think we can make an impact,” asserted Cabral, who signed with Team Nike after the trials.
“This is going to be a step, we want to do better than we have done in the past. There are two world championships before the next Olympics.”
In reflecting on the last year, Cabral knows he has taken some big steps.
“I was 19th at the cross country nationals last fall and I was third in the Heps Indoor 3k,” said Cabral.
“Now I am running the 3k steeplechase in Europe as an Olympian. I have come a long way in a year.”