Freelance track and field writer Dave Hunter ’72 wrote a profile of track star Donn Cabral ’12 for our Road to Rio series in May. Hunter was covering the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., where Cabral earned his second Olympic bid and became the 13th Princetonian to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. He filed this follow-up report.
After Donn Cabral ’12 posted the fastest qualifying time in the preliminary round of the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase earlier this week, I sent him a congratulatory text wishing him well in the final. In his prompt reply, he declared he was “ready to fight.” Was he ever.
As Friday’s steeple final got underway, 15 American men chased after three spots on the U.S. Olympic team. Cabral — a 2012 Olympic steeplechaser — tucked in near the front of the lead pack as the race unfolded while American-record-holder and prohibitive favorite Evan Jager was content to hang back in the early going. Midway through the race, the real racing began as Jager moved into the lead and picked up the tempo. As Jager’s surge strung out the field, Cabral hung on near the front — always within striking distance of the top three spots that would earn a place on the U.S. Olympic team.
Jager’s increased cadence soon began to take its toll as one by one the finalists began to let go, their Olympic dreams slipping away. Cabral doggedly held on and was a laboring fourth as the bell rang to signal the final lap. “I was gapped by the top three. It looked like I wasn’t in contention to make the team at that point,” Cabral explained afterward. “And I just told myself that I needed to close the gap as well as I can right now so that when it comes to the last 100 [or] 150, I’m in position to get into the top three.”
The last 400 meters would prove to be 70 seconds that Cabral will never forget. As the final circuit began, Cabral’s effort to close the gap he faced behind the three leaders — Jager followed by Hillary Bor and Andrew Bayer — was producing little success. On the backstretch, Cabral, struggling mightily, was relegated to fifth when he was passed by Stanley Kebenei. A lesser competitor would have surrendered. “I was worried because I wasn’t feeling great. I wasn’t feeling very smooth. I was trying to close the gap, but it wasn’t really happening. Stanley Kebenei just flew by me,” said the former Princeton star. “And I knew that in the Olympic Trials so far things have been hairy — a lot of falls, a lot of chaos. And I know that late in the race at a big meet like this there was a good chance that if I just tried to stay as close as I could that something would happen — a bad hurdle, somebody going down, or some inefficiency. I am generally efficient at the end of a race and I thought I could just make up ground.”
Still battling with less than 200 meters remaining, the Glastonbury, Conn., native approached the final water jump. As Cabral leaped to clear the barrier, Kebenei — just a few strides ahead — fell into water. It was the moment Cabral desperately needed. Passing his fallen competitor to move into fourth, Cabral, suddenly energized, looked up to find a struggling Bayer less than 10 meters ahead. With less than 100 meters remaining, Cabral caught and passed Bayer on the homestretch just before the final barrier. “That last barrier was ugly,” Cabral would later confess. It didn’t matter; there are no style points in the steeplechase. Now in third, Cabral gave one final glance back before racing unchallenged to cross the finish line in 8:26.37 and securing his second Olympic team berth.
Almost without exception, athletes who have just achieved a long-pursued, lifetime goal of making an Olympic team are overcome with joy. Not so with Cabral, who in assessing his performance was surely a harsh grader. “I don’t know if I found the final gear or if everyone else just gave me the Olympic spot. Honestly, today was not my best race,” he told the media. “I crossed the line and I had to make myself happy because it was a really strange way to make the Olympic team. I got third place, got my butt kicked, and ran kind of poorly. It wasn’t a race I’m super proud of.”
The now two-time Olympian sees his displeasure with his qualifying race as a motivating force for an elevated performance on Rio’s big stage. “I think I have much more fire to really represent myself well and come through well at Rio, knowing that this is the work I have to do to get to the level I need to get at,” he said. “Today didn’t show it, but I do think I’m there — it just wasn’t there today.”
The 26-year-old admitted his late race composure on the final lap was critical — and rare. “I think I stayed more positive than a lot of athletes would. So if I’m looking for things to build myself up with, I’d say I’m proud of that,” noted Cabral, who singled out that element of his race. “I stayed positive and I kept believing the whole time. I just knew I wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities at any point in that race.”
Noted for his big-race performances and his ability to maintain a singular focus on a lofty goal for an extended period time, Cabral went all in to prepare for the Trials. “I spent over a month in Flagstaff with my teammates and really just worked hard and put a lot of junk in my legs – a lot of mileage and training,” he said. “Today didn’t feel great, but I really did do all the little things right, I think, for a good hunk of time. And I really brought in a lot of focus today.”
Cabral plans to return to altitude to mix more fitness work with sharpening. “I’ll go back to Flagstaff for a little over three weeks, then I’ll come back down for the TrackTown Summer Series in Eugene on July 29. And then it’s off to Rio,” he said. “I’ve got about a month to get a couple of good weeks of training in. I can’t put myself underwater like I did this spring. I really want to always be race ready, but also still improve my fitness. So that’s the juggling act right now. Coach Gags [Frank Gagliano of the NJ/NY Track Club] and I will really sit down and figure out what’s going on the next few weeks.”
Cabral — who is an excellent hurdler and a sub-4:00 miler — views his Olympic goals as sequential and to be taken one step at a time. “It is hard to talk about big goals after a bad race today,” confided Cabral who made the steeplechase final in the 2012 London Games and finished eighth in 8:25.91. “I’ve just got to reset, get a couple of good weeks in. My goal is to get my legs as ready to go as possible for Rio. First things first: Make the final. And then we’ll talk again from there. I’m healthy right now. My training has been going really well. I am very encouraged about where I stack up for Rio — especially in comparison with four years ago. So I’m ready to go.”
Before scurrying off to the steeplechase press conference with Jager and Bor, Cabral offered some fleeting observations on the final. “Sometimes a person’s best races are the ones that feel the easiest. I don’t think today I gave it the effort that is required to be dubbed an Olympian. I don’t think I gave it that today. I think I was weak in the last 600. And I think I got lucky. And so I’d say with the races where I have dug down and worked really hard, I deserve the title. Today I got lucky. I got third in the U.S. And I was lucky enough to get third in an Olympic year. In 2012, I made the Olympic team. And it was my first one. And I was ecstatic. I ran amazingly. I ran strong. I was very proud of that race. This time, I needed to really tell myself that I made the Olympic team. I was unhappy with the performance. But at the end of the day, I think we’re going to have a great team. And I’m glad I’m a part of it.”
Later that evening Cabral, his Princeton distance coach Steve Dolan — now the director of track and field/cross country at Penn — and various Princeton friends gathered to celebrate Cabral’s second Olympic team berth and to honor him with a Locomotive cheer before a packed house at the Wild Duck Café in Eugene:
Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!, Sis! Sis! Sis!, Boom! Boom! Boom!, Bah! — Cabral! Cabral! Cabral!
Cabral’s long-overdue smile was a welcome sight.