An exceptional year for the men’s track and field team ended with Donn Cabral ’12 doing what no Princeton runner had done in nearly eight decades: With his first-place finish in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA Championships June 9, he became the first Princeton runner to win an NCAA title since 1934.
Cabral was a reluctant convert to the steeplechase, which has four heavy wooden barriers and one water jump on each lap. Until this year, he considered himself a 5,000-meter specialist who ran the steeple occasionally, even though he was the runner-up in the NCAA steeplechase for the past two years. But Cabral’s toughness and commitment to training is legendary. In his dorm, he sleeps in a high-altitude tent to boost his body’s oxygen-processing capacity.
At a mid-May invitational in Los Angeles, Cabral beat all the top American steeplers, clocking 8:19.14. It was the second-fastest time ever by a collegian, behind Kenyan great Henry Rono, who was widely considered the best distance runner in the world during the late 1970s. Cabral isn’t in Rono’s class yet, but that time made Cabral a favorite for the U.S. Olympic team. He was headed to the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., in late June, where he had to finish among the first three to make the team.
Cabral’s NCAA finish — he beat the runner-up by five seconds, a significant margin — made him Princeton’s first individual national champion in track since Bill “Bonny” Bonthron ’34 won the mile in 1934, and the first outdoor national champion since Tora Harris ’02 won the high jump in 2002.
Cabral’s triumph capped a year in which the team broke records on a regular basis. In the winter and spring seasons, University records fell in the pole vault, the 3,000-meter race, the indoor distance medley relay, and the hammer throw, among others. Damon McLean ’14 set a Princeton record in the triple jump at the NCAAs to become the first All-American triple jumper in the University’s history.
The team’s middle-distance runners were especially impressive. Indoors, Peter Callahan ’13 and Joe Stilin ’12 broke four minutes for the mile (running 3:58.76 and 3:59.98, respectively). Outdoors, Stilin ran 3:39.42 for 1,500 meters (known as the metric mile), while Trevor Van Ackeren ’12 ran 3:39.90. Those times are equal to about 3:58 for a mile, meaning that at season’s end, Cabral’s best mile of 4:00.30 placed him only fourth among milers on this remarkable team.
Cabral may be able to run a much faster mile than that — he had impressive times running the anchor mile for the Tigers’ relay teams, which won the distance medley and the four-mile relays at the Penn Relays in April. What Cabral thrives on, he said, is “the adrenaline of competing against others.”