July 29, 2020

Although COVID-19 Pandemic Postponed Olympics, PU Track Alum Cabral Still Chasing 3rd Trip to Games

STILL CHASING HIS DREAM: Donn Cabral clears a hurdle in a steeplechase race during a 2016 meet. Former Princeton University men’s track star Cabral ’12, who competed for the U.S. in the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase in both the 2012 and 2016 Summer Games, was planning to go after a third trip to the Olympics before the U.S. Olympic Track Trials and 2020 Tokyo Games were postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cabral placed eighth in each of his two previous Olympic appearances and is planning to continue training over the next year for one last shot at the Games. (Photo Courtesy of USA Track)

By Justin Feil

Donn Cabral returned to Princeton University in late May and ran on the weekend that would have featured Reunion festivities.

The three-time NCAA All-American in steeplechase and two-time cross country All-America during his Princeton men’s track career might normally have been preparing for a shot at making his third United States Olympic team, but on this occasion it was just a chance to reconnect with former Tiger men’s cross country co-captain Brian Leung.

“I’m still very much plugged in with the people that I knew,” said Cabral, the American collegiate record holder in the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase (8:19.14).

“The most important thing for me is the inspiration I get from other friends from college who are doing really cool things and following what they love and putting their heart and soul into it and even just being willing and able to talk and open up and discuss our goals and shortcomings and our steps to improve through them. Princeton is still very much a part of my life. I was looking forward to getting to go to Reunions this year.”

Cabral has done some really cool things himself since graduating in 2012 and hopes to add one more big achievement before he retires from running professionally.

After winning the NCAA Championship in men’s steeplechase as a Princeton senior, he made his first Olympics team for the United States and finished eighth in the London Olympics in 2012, then four years later he took eighth again in his second Olympics in Rio in 2016.

He is determined to take a shot at making one more Olympic team, though that goal was pushed back a year when the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to start last Friday, were postponed until July 23, 2021, due to the same coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of Princeton’s official Reunions weekend events.

“It was a growing suspicion for weeks and weeks and weeks,” said Cabral of the Olympics delay. “Finally when the announcement came, it was like relief that there was no longer limbo.”

Since graduating from Princeton, Cabral has been following closely his plan to compete as long as realistically possible before moving into law and business. Making the Olympic team in 2012 was a major achievement that got his professional career off to a flying start and since then he has battled through ups and downs, with injuries mixed with personal record runs.

“There are definitely things that will bother me from an athletic point of view, but I also was thinking around 2012 that I wanted to make the Olympics in 2012 and then spend four years really devoting myself to running only, no other degrees or anything like that,” said Cabral.

“I thought after one Olympic cycle, that’s when I’ll try to expand myself and still stick with running if I can get a contract and afford to do it, but start setting myself up to move forward and contribute to society or using my brain to make a living. I stuck with that pretty much on the money.”

The 5’10, 150-pound Cabral lives and trains in Hartford, Conn., about 10 miles from where he grew up in Glastonbury, Conn. After taking the spring semester off in anticipation of training full-time for the Olympic Trials, he has one year remaining in the JD/MBA degree program at the University of Connecticut, and he won’t take any more time off from school as he prepares for the postponed U.S. Olympic Trials that are currently slated for June 18-27, 2021, in Eugene, Ore. Cabral is looking for a job for the summer, then will start juggling studies and training together when school resumes in September.

“It’s hard, but the biggest jump I ever made in my career was from my junior year to my senior year in college,” said Cabral.

“That was 2011 to 2012. It involved a crazy amount of work and focus, but it was also during school. It was a very difficult time in a lot of ways, and I know I can do it and that does give me hope that I can do it now. I just need to prove to myself that I didn’t use up all that emotion and motivation and dedication and self-restraint, that I didn’t use it all up then.”

Things are different for Cabral, good and bad. He’s 30 years old and will be 31 when the Trials come around next summer. He’s dealt with Achilles, knee, and muscle aches and pains, but he also has confidence that if he can get healthier, he has a good chance with his experience and determination.

“If my knee feels like I can run,” said Cabral, “but I can’t really train the way I want perfectly and I’m struggling to deal with the injuries and I can’t do plyometrics and I have to do all my workouts just running on the track, I’d say I would have very little shot that I can make the team like that. If I can get it taken care of, I think it’s a 50-50 shot. There’s not a lot of athletes out there that can say they have a 50-50 shot to make the team. Most people would call that an overconfident projection. If you look at Vegas odds for any athletes, 50-50 is pretty good. I have a lot of confidence in myself, it’s just can I get to the point where I can handle the training. I’m getting close.”

Having one more chance is all the motivation that Cabral needs. He was feeling better about his conditioning as he headed into the new year, and one of the most encouraging traits that he has going for him is his drive. That drive hasn’t changed even with the Olympics being pushed back a year.

“I think the biggest thing for me is the risks I’m willing to take in terms of how hard I’m willing to train are particularly high,” said Cabral.

“If I don’t make the team, it’s fine. If I end up injured and unable to run the Trials, I’ll still be able to rest my hat on being a two-time Olympian so why not go all out and really take my shot. There’s really nothing to lose for me the way I see it. I also look at it as I know what it takes to make the team. I know what it takes to get in shape to run 8:13. I know what it takes to run a personal best. I know what it takes late in the race to pass someone who maybe passed you and sometimes you can see in their stride that they’re giving it everything they’ve got a little too early. I’ve got that race experience where you can gauge things, either in a race or over a course of a season.”

Cabral is the 10th fastest American steeplechaser all-time, clocking a personal best of 8:13:37 on June 28, 2015 at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., where the Olympic Trials will be held. His penchant for coming through in key spots bolsters his chances of reaching a third Olympic team.

“The racer that I was in 2012 is still in me,” said Cabral. “The biggest thing for me is I will race as well as I am. When I’m fit and feeling confident, I’m willing to put myself into a place of hurt that I really shouldn’t go to more than five or 10 times in my career. I can do that when I’m really fit because it’s worth it to me at that point. When things are not going so well, that’s when my racing is very mediocre and uninspired. In 2021, if I can be healthy and fit, I can race just as hard or harder than anybody else on that line and I have a lot of faith in my ability to show up when it counts as long as I have that general fitness to back it up.”

After his 2015 PR run, Cabral hit some rocky times. He was pushing for a higher place at the 2016 Olympics, and then following Rio suffered injuries and setbacks, looked at a new event with his first marathon, and then ratcheted up his training for Tokyo before that was delayed.

“I was shooting for my third Olympics,” said Cabral. “It was really something I was very proud of to gather up all that energy and determination to make the team in 2012 and I think it was a really phenomenal thing that I did. In 2016, it was slightly less impressive with my buildup to the Olympics and I was dealing with some injuries and the work ethic wasn’t quite the same. It was enough to get me to the Olympics, but it wasn’t quite the same as 2012 when it was Herculean. And now this is kind of giving me one more year as a blessing in disguise to sum up the energy it takes to do every little thing right and take care of business and be the athlete I want to be. I’m looking at it as a blessing and really show the world one more time what I can be.”

Following the postponement of the Olympics, Cabral took some time off to let some nagging injuries heal. He will resume training, and has been planning to compete in a Connecticut track meet that also features Matt Farrell, an incoming freshman at Princeton and two-time Foot Locker Cross Country Nationals qualifier who hails from Cabral’s hometown of Glastonbury. Farrell counts Cabral as an inspiration after Cabral came and spoke to his fifth grade class following the 2012 Olympics.

“I still remember seeing him,” said Cabral. “He’s following my footsteps and going to Princeton next year.”

While Farrell’s career may just be taking off, Cabral knows that his own is winding down. He is taking steps to prepare for his next career, and recently has been considering remaining in sports for law or business.

“Over the course of my college and professional career,” running has become something that defines me and distinguishes me,” said Cabral.

“I can grow to become a good lawyer in any field, I would like to think, but I think my sports experience is something that will allow me to become a great lawyer or businessperson if I can leverage that and put it to use once I realized that this sports world isn’t something I’m tired of, it’s something that’s a part of me and is part of my complete package.”

Cabral is hoping to add another accomplishment to his running resume before he exits, although his big goal now has been delayed. That final Olympic opportunity is never far from his thoughts as he heads into another year of training.

“I do know that it will help my day to day preparations – when I wake up and I have to start doing things that are uncomfortable to get better at this sport to prepare myself to make the team, it helps to know this is my last shot,” said Cabral.

“After this, I’m going to be a lawyer. I’m going to move on, I’m going to run as a hobby, not a lifestyle, not as a living. If that doesn’t get me out of bed, I don’t know what does.”