Monday, July 11, 2016

Donn Cabral, Two-Time Olympian

Donn Cabral looked like he might have been in a little bit of trouble on the final lap of the 3,000-meter steeplechase final at the Olympic Trials Friday night.

He was in fifth. The top three would advance to the Olympic Games. He had to catch two of the runners in front of him - and he was running out of time to do it. And, maybe, it looked like he was running out of energy to do it too.

TigerBlog watched on television.

In full disclosure - Cabral is TigerBlog's favorite Princeton athlete (okay, non-men's lacrosse player) of the last 10 years or so. Earlier last week, TigerBlog was talking to Ford Family Director of Athletics Mollie Marcoux ’91, who wasn't at Princeton when Cabral was.

TB was trying to explain the dynamic presence that Cabral had, combined with his incredible athletic success. Cabral had "talent and charisma," TigerBlog told Marcoux.

In fact, TB wrote this about Cabral more than four years ago, when Cabral was a senior at Princeton:
Cabral has become a complete rock star around here, the first since men's squash player Yasser El Halaby. Anytime Cabral was around - running or just walking into the building - everyone gave him the "there he is" look. It's the rock star treatment. He's not a big man, and in TB's limited dealings with him, he's quiet. He seems polite, respectful. And driven, very, very driven. TB doesn't remember too many athletes who have competed here who drew attention to themselves simply with the sheer impressiveness of their training the way Cabral has. It's as if he's putting on a show for the people who happen to look out on the track when he goes through his workouts. TB has stood on the balcony and watched him, along with other people in the department, and muttered only "wow" as he went lap after lap, seemingly in a dead sprint the whole time.

 So yeah, he was rooting hard for Cabral.

When it started to look iffy Friday night, TigerBlog thought back to when Cabral was a Princeton junior, at the 2010 Heps cross country championships. As TB recalled, Cabral was sick that day with sort of respiratory illness, and it wasn't even clear if he was going to run at all.

TB stood near the finish line at Van Cortlandt Park in New York that day. Heps cross country, by the way, is one of TigerBlog's favorite annual events on the Princeton Athletics calendar, and he hasn't missed one in awhile.

Back on that day in 2010, Cabral did in fact run. And he ran fast. And he won by a lot.

In fact, you can see the picture on the story from that day HERE. The runner-up is nowhere to be seen.

What really stood out to TigerBlog from that race was the way Cabral finished. As TB remembers, Cabral ran the final 100 meters or so of that race so fast and so effortlessly that he looked like a jet on a runway about to take off. It looked like he could have run that fast forever if he wanted.

And so, as the race Friday night started to reach its critical moments, TigerBlog thought back to that moment. That gear, the one that Cabral trotted out at Heps in 2010, was in there somewhere.

Cabral won the 2012 NCAA steeplechase championship and then qualified for the Olympics a few weeks later at those Trials. It seemed like that was enough for him at the time.

Then he got to the London Olympics, and lo and behold, he qualified for the final. And then at the final, he finished eighth. It was an incredible accomplishment.

Now here he was, four years later, trying to get back. And it certainly wasn't a given that he would, not when he was in sixth midway through and fifth very, very late.

Still, TigerBlog was confident.

And then Cabral got some help. Stanley Kebeney clipped the final water jump and went down, and Cabral was able to dance past him.

From there, Cabral shifted into that other gear. He went from well behind Andrew Bayer to well in front of him in a blink, and Cabral took third by more than two seconds.

He was again an Olympian.

What would have happened had Kebeney not fallen? TigerBlog has no doubt that it wouldn't have mattered. Cabral would have gone into his other gear and finished third anyway. 

By the way, Cabral is not the only one with a Princeton connection to have made the U.S. Olympic track team this weekend. Princeton volunteer assistant cross country coach Robby Andrews, a UVa grad and former roommate of Cabral's, finished second in the 1,500.

TigerBlog has met Cabral twice, sort of.

The first time was on the phone, for a story for the football game program when Cabral was a senior. Cabral sent TB a nice thank-you note after the story appeared.

The second time was outside Caldwell Field House. TB introduced himself as the person who wrote the story. They shook hands. TB thought briefly about getting an autograph or asking to get his picture taken with Cabral, but that seemed like a little much.

Cabral's fitness and training are somewhat legendary. He worked hard for four years to get back to the Olympics, and now he's going.

It's not easy to get there once. To do it twice is even more remarkable.

The steeplechase has become TB's favorite event. During the Trials coverage, one of the NBC commentators mentioned how one of the runners said that the attraction of the steeplechase is that it's not just running around the track, and maybe there's something to that.

At one point over the weekend, TigerBlog flipped on the radio to hear a version of "4th of July Asbury Park" by the Hollies. You know, the group that sang "The Air That I Breathe," which is a beautiful song, one that TigerBlog has always liked a lot.

The song "4th of July Asbury Park" is one of TB's very favorite songs by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The Hollies version? It just didn't work for him.

And then he thought about Cabral and the steeplechase.

Same song, not the same without the Boss.

Same race at the Olympics, wouldn't nearly be the same without Donn Cabral.

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