By Justin Feil, Special Writer
Donn Cabral is returning to the Olympics for the second time after placing third in the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the recent United States Olympic Trials.
The 2012 Princeton University graduate’s return means not only that he prepared well on the track, but he can use his off-field preparation.
“I’m really relieved I made the team because now all my time spent learning Portuguese is now worthwhile,” said Cabral. He has been studying Portuguese at Berlitz in Princeton twice per week since last September.
“I told them I was an Olympic hopeful,” he said. “Now I can say I’m going. It’ll be a lot easier to focus on the lessons when I know I’ll be going.”
Cabral, whose last name is Portuguese, is hoping if he can speak Portuguese at the Olympics in Rio, Brazil, he can sway a few local fans to root for him as he tries to improve on his eighth-place finish at the London Olympics in 2012. He is part of the American team along with Evan Jager and Hillary Bor.
“I think we can compete well,” Cabral said. “Kenya is the only team that stacks up more favorably than the USA. At the end of the day, we’re individuals. I don’t think getting a medal is out of the question. It would require the perfect race and a little luck, but we’ve seen those things can happen.”
Cabral feels different as he heads to his second Olympics, and he is in a far different place than four years ago. In 2012, he was only a couple months removed from his studies and competing at Princeton. The Olympic Trials and Olympics extended his competitive year even further.
“This year I took a little more risk in the training and set things up with my coach more geared to be at my best come the Olympics,” Cabral said. “In 2012 I had a collegiate season with important conference championships, NCAAs and then Olympic Trials. This year, I’ve been able to be more single minded with my preparation.”
That preparation has included time in Princeton, where Cabral hasn’t stopped his academic growth. He has relished the challenge of learning Portuguese.
“It’s a great excuse to come back to Princeton,” he said. “I usually get dinner and walk around campus. I’m a big fan of learning and after a year or two of not doing much outside of running, it’s nice to ignite my mind and get off my butt and keep growing personally.”
Cabral doesn’t need much of an excuse to return to Princeton. He moved back east to Clinton, N.J., after spending a year in Washington following graduation.
“I realized I missed the East Coast,” said Cabral, who grew up in Connecticut.
Cabral has been training under legendary coach Frank Gagliano, the coach of the New Jersey-New York Track Club, who trains another Princeton graduate and steeplechaser, Ashley Higginson. Cabral has only fond memories of his time at Princeton University.
“I loved it,” Cabral said. “One of my favorite things is to go back and walk the campus and not just enjoy the beauty of it, but think about senior year. It’s nice to walk through those memories again and summon up the courage to train at that level.”
Over the last four years, Cabral has further established himself as one of the top steeplechasers in the U.S. He is looking forward to representing the country again.
“Two of my strengths are athleticism and toughness,” Cabral said. “I think that’s why I made the team this year. I wasn’t proud of a lot of parts of my (Trials) race. I’m proud I kept pushing even when it looked like third place was out of the question. Over the final water barrier, I think my athleticism let me get around one of the fallen runners and get my speed back up again. If it weren’t for my speed and toughness, I don’t think I would have made it.”
At the Olympic Trials on July 8 in Eugene, Ore., Cabral was in fifth place with barely a lap left. He was able to get by Stanley Kebenei, who fell into the final water jump, and passed Andy Bayer shortly before the final hurdle.
“With about 500 to go, I was trying to fight for that third position to battle Andy Bayer and he started to pull away from me,” Cabral recalled. “That’s when I could tell things weren’t going great and I’d struggle to close the way I’d like to. With 200 to go I was in fifth and I was doing everything I could to not let the gap grow bigger. I could see the guys in front of me were hurting, and when I saw some contact, I knew something was going to happen. I knew if I could stay on it and close hard, I’d have a chance. Things were looking pretty bleak until I saw those little signs of weakness. I started to pick it up. Stanley fell in the water and I was able to get around him. The change in rhythm was enough to throw Andy off his game and I was able to get around him too.”
The top three finishers earned spots on the Olympic team. Cabral had envisioned coming off the final barrier neck and neck with Bayer, but not the way it played out with some of the drama behind them.
“It feels different this time,” Cabral said of making the Olympics. “Every way that I had envisioned the Trials going was different, it was either a great triumph or a great disaster. I made the team which I’m proud of, but it was a tough way to make it because I didn’t race my best. It’s been a weird blend of emotions.”
Cabral and Jager were both on the 2012 Olympic team and that experience is valuable. Cabral’s post-Trials plan was nothing like in 2012.
“In 2012, I went back to Connecticut to celebrate with friends and family,” he said. “I really got to soak in the emotions. This time, I went right out to Flagstaff (Ariz.) to go back into training as smoothly as possible. It is very different all-around.”
Cabral won’t race until the final days of the Olympics. He competes in preliminaries on Aug. 15. The finals are scheduled for Aug. 17.
“My goal is to get a little training in and still make some more improvements to my fitness,” Cabral said. “I want to prioritize going in healthy and rested. My last race will be July 29 in Eugene, live on ESPN, the Eugene Track Town Summer Series. I’ll use that as one last chance to prime the competitive juices and tune up the legs so I know what I’m doing when it comes to race time. I’ll really hit a couple last key workouts between now and Rio.”
In Rio, Cabral won’t spend time worrying about some of the well-publicized health and wellness concerns. He will take the necessary precautions. His maturity and experience from 2012 have him prepared to deal with the possibly bigger distraction.
“In 2012, one of the things I felt at the Olympics was the stress of the social scene,” Cabral said. “Being in a completely new place, just graduating from college, being around a room of Olympians was daunting to me. That might not sound like anything substantial to the normal person, but when you’re in that situation for a week or two or three at a time, that can take a toll on you. This time I know I’m more confident and comfortable with myself. The only things on my mind will be competition. I think that’s really valuable.”
With all of the focus of his training aimed at having him prepared for the Olympics, Cabral feels better about his chances to medal in his second Olympics. His focus will be first on advancing to the finals.
“I think I’ve trained well and I need to bring my emotion into prelims and ride it through to finals,” Cabral said.
The preliminary race could land him the opportunity to practice his Portuguese in a post-race interview, and the chance to win some fans for the finals to go with plenty of fans back in Princeton who will be pulling for him to bring back a medal.
“I definitely still have pride in my ties to Princeton, to the university and community,” Cabral said. “After every race, I hear so much support from the university and the people I’ve met in the area.”
By Justin Feil, Special Writer