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A Steeplechase Athlete Lives An Olympic Dream

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For Donn Cabral, home has been a suitcase and plane ticket.

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Princeton’s Donn Cabral – Photo is Courtesy of Ivy League Sports

Cabral, who finished 8th out of 13 finishers in the steeplechase at the 2012 London Olympics has been on the road since June and even though there are many races ahead he will have to wait until 2016 to try for Olympic gold again.

Prior to the Olympics, Cabral raced in Iowa where he placed first in the 3,000m steeplechase with an 8:35:44 time in the NCAA Division 1 Championships.  Later that June Cabral placed second in the U.S. Olympic trials in Oregon.  He then went to London for the Olympics and after that to Switzerland for the Lausanne Diamond League, where he placed 10th out of 14 entrants with a time of 8:31:56, about 6 and a half seconds slower then his Olympic time of 8:25:91.  He was the only one in this race from the Unites States.

He returned home to Glastonbury, where he visited with his family and friends, then drove across country in his Ford Fusion to Bellingham, Washington where he will train with his newly signed coach Peter Oviatt who lives there now.  Oviatt was his coach at Glastonbury High School until Cabral graduated in 2008.  But still keeping in touch, Oviatt watched Cabral’s times through out his time at Princeton, which he graduated from this past spring with an economics major and Russian minor.

Cabral is 5’10”, weighs 143 pounds when he’s training and 148 when he’s not.  He’s trim, muscular and has thick short-cropped, dark brown hair.  And is fluent in Russian and Spanish.

In a phone interview earlier this fall, Cabral said, he hasn’t quite caught his breath from moving around and will take a few weeks off from racing to retrain and get fit again in Washington.  He returned home briefly to run in the annual Thanksgiving Day road race in Manchester where he placed third in the 5k race with a time of 21:33, faster than his sixth place finish in 2011 with a time of 22:02.

“I wanted to win this year,” Cabral told The Hartford Courant after the race.  “My coach [Oviatt] told me my workouts indicated I could.  I did everything I thought I needed to do,” he added.

In the coming months Cabral will train with the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro dictating his schedule.

“Rio 2016 is the first thing on our minds, Oviatt said in an e-mail. “Before that we have the World Championships in Moscow 2013. Before that we have the U.S. outdoor track season that culminates with the USA Track and Field National Championships and then a European season between the USATF meet and world’s.”

He also has a short indoor season coming up, the coach said.

“He will most likely do a tune up race or two in early January and then run some big indoor races in Boston, Seattle and possibly New York City.  We need to focus on the long-term goal so we can’t sacrifice training for racing right now but he enjoys racing and a few races do work into the training scheme.  The next big race will probably be in Boston the first weekend in February,” he said.

Based on his schedule, Cabral never sacrifices training.

He trains seven days a week, only taking off when he’s traveling, sick or injured.  In 2011, this amounted to only five days.  Practice consists of running, plyometrics, bounding and hurdle specific drills to master the steeplechase technique.

The classic steeplechase is a 3,000m race consisting of 35 hurdles, seven of those with a water pit jump after them.

“Each track is a little different,” said Cabral.

The race begins at a standing start.  There are seven full laps to complete after the first half lap through the finish line.  The first obstacles are three three-feet high and 13-feet wide hurdle jumps.  The fourth hurdle is a jump with a 12-foot long water pit that is 27.5 inches at its deepest point (which is closest to the hurdle), and then slopes so it’s level with the track.  After splashing through the water, runners continue along and jump a fifth and final dry hurdle before the finish line and the cycle repeats.

The 3,000m steeplechase world record is 7:53:63, set by Saif Saaeed Shaheen who races for Qatar, part of the Arabian Peninsula.  In Sept. 2004, Shaheen 22 at the time, beat Olympian champion, Ezekiel Kemboi from Kenya a month after the Olympics. Cabral’s personal best in the steeplechase was during the Oxy High Performance meet in Los Angeles this past May, which he completed in 8:19:41, second best in the U.S. and 26th fasted steeplechase athlete in the world.

“Cabral’s one of the best hurdlers out there,” said Steve Dolan, Cabral’s former coach at Princeton, who now coaches at the University of Pennsylvania. “Cabral never missed a practice and he was “the best at the barriers in the Olympic trials,” Dolan said in a phone interview.

“He was always at practice, ready to go.  College practice was good for him.  He got a lot out of being part of a team.  He’s a great leader and was the team’s captain.  It was very important in his pursuit of success,” said Dolan.

In 2011 last fall Cabral also trained in his dorm room at Princeton with a high altitude tent he bought on Craigslist for $750.  The tent produces oxygen reduced air, which is supposed to enhance the body’s respiratory, cardiovascular and oxygen systems to give an athlete increased endurance and speed and improved recovery, according to the manufacturer Colorado Altitude Training (CAT).  Cabral said he studied and slept in the tent for five months prior to the Olympics.

Dolan commented on the benefits of Cabral’s high altitude tent, saying, “We don’t have scientific truth but living at a higher altitude gets better oxygen to the muscles.  In the early summer months Cabral interned for Cloud Conversion a software company in Utah where most of his Princeton teammates lived and worked.  It’s naturally at altitude, which maybe helped while he was also training there, so when he got back to Princeton he kept going with it.

“And he did great, Dolan continued.  “It certainly didn’t hurt him.  With his diet and increased training program, it was another example of really going for it, it was just really good.”

Cabral agreed the tent helped, “It was another thing to try and get the most out of myself.”

Dolan wasn’t Cabral’s only coach.  Oviatt kept in close contact with Cabral during his years a Princeton and leading up to and during the London Olympics.

“I have a coaching philosophy that no matter how great your coach is there are always little gaps that need to be filled in yourself,” Oviatt said.  “I call these “one-percenters.  Your basic program takes you a certain percentage towards your goal.  The rest of the way is up to you to accomplish one facet, or percent at a time.  We talked a lot about these and how they could be fit into his regiment at Princeton,” he said.

“Leading up to the Olympics when he was on his own, we talked about the final weeks of training that would lead to the best race possible and he fit that in with what his coach at Princeton had given him,” Oviatt continued.  “While a bit unconventional, it seemed to be a great synthesis,” he said.

To prepare mentally for races, Cabral writes mantras on index cards and reads through them out loud.  As he gets closer to a race, he selects cards which he thinks will help him for that particular race.  When he’s made a final selection, he then repeats that mantra during warm ups and throughout the race.

One recent mantra for a race was “I am a very talented runner.”  But the mantra Cabral used for the Olympics was, “I am so light and speedy.”

With that mantra fresh in his mind, Cabral walked into the Olympic stadium in London pumped, but not nervous, unlike his first competition at Nationals when he observed the scale of his competition.  Lately he has not been nervous at all during Team USA events because of his eight years experience.

Throughout Cabral’s running career, his family and fans have been his major support. His parents, John Cabral and Deborah Hadaway, and his siblings, Stephanie, 29, and Mike, 26, travel to many of his races and were in London for the 2012 Olympics.

“They make a big effort to be there,” said Cabral.

“All four of us went,” said John Cabral about the London Olympics. “My wife’s brother brought his family, and some of the kids from Princeton and Glastonbury came.  We sat a level up right above the finish line,” he said.

“When he was younger in high school we went to every one of his races,” John Cabral continued. “We went to San Diego and Poland, which was like a junior Olympics. When he was in college we went to the ones we could, if it wasn’t too far.  If it’s a big race, like regionals or nationals we’d go.” The family wasn’t too concerned about missing indoor meets because, his father said, “outdoor was more important” to Cabral.

“I think all that helped him with all the other big races,” he said.

“It’s kind of surreal and pretty cool seeing your children reach their goals,” said Cabral’s mother during a phone interview.

“I’m happy for him,” said Hadaway about Cabral moving out to Bellingham, pointing out that her son has great confidence in Oviatt. “That’s the unselfish part of me.  The selfish part is he’s now 3,000 plus miles away and he’s busy,” she said.

When Cabral is at home, he likes to get up early to spend time with his family, his father said. “He’s never been so much of a traveler; he’d rather be with his family at home,” he said.

He called his son “one of the best human beings I know. He’s had wisdom I didn’t even know. As a person he’s had a brilliant mind, always wanted to do the right thing.  And he got upset if he didn’t. I knew from the time he was young he was special (but) I never thought he’d be a runner.”

Through his running career, Cabral has been relatively injury free except for some issues with his feet involving his arches and a tear in his left plantar fasciitis. “Older people usually have this, Cabral said. “It’s from running and being up on my toes.”

In 2008 a water skiing accident cost him his freshman year of running at Princeton.  Still able to attend classes, he ultimately healed on his own but there are still some residual problems.

Another health-related issue is when Cabral trains a lot he is more susceptible to sore throats and other injures. To prepare for the Olympics trials and the games, themselves, Cabral took amino acids and Echinacea in addition to following a healthy diet to get the most out of his body and to avoid getting sick.

Cabral is not sure why he gets sick so often but said, “Everyone has better strengths and weaknesses.  I don’t get injured easily but I do get sick often, too often.”

At Princeton he tried to lay low when he wasn’t running in order to recover enough after each practice, instead he played volleyball with friends.

Oviatt said Cabral has gained maturity, wisdom and confidence from both the Princeton education and coaching from some of the best in the world.

He said it’s fun but overwhelming to be coaching Cabral again.

“I think any coach secretly, or even not secretly wonders how the ideas they apply to their athlete would work with the best runners in the world.  Having the chance to find out is a wonderful challenge but the margin of error is so much less with an elite athlete,” he said.

“I know with inexperienced runners a certain set of principles will help them improve even if I don’t get everything perfect.  With [Cabral] I feel that things need to be a lot closer to perfect.”

“He’s pretty good about following the training plan I give him so I know it better be the right one for him or he won’t hit the goals we talked about,” Oviatt said. “That comes with a little pressure especially since having known him for so long.  There is the added pressure of wanting to do well as a person beyond what I want for him as a coach.”

Now that Cabral’s out of school he has more freedom and time in his life, said Oviatt.  “I will need to keep an eye out to make sure the adjustment goes well but for now I need to see how he fits everything in on his own.  If there is a time for mistakes due to leniency, it is now.  The effort it took to make the Olympics was so extreme that this season needs to be the lightest emotionally he has had in four years, and will have for the next four,” he said.

Oviatt said, “Cabral learned to treat running like it was a real sport and not a layover season.  His reward was not only the high school accolades and college scholarship offers that I thought he’d get, but was the NCAA All American, the NCAA Champion and Olympic team membership that so few people get, all of the honors that he brought to Connecticut and Glastonbury.  He showed that it is possible,” said Oviatt.

Emily Croll is a journalism student at the University of Connecticut. She wrote this story for her fall 2012 sports writing course.