Steeplechaser Donn Cabral is headed to the finals in Rio de Janeiro today after coming from behind to finish third at the Olympic Trials in July. In his first Olympics four years ago, Cabral made the final and finished eighth despite being ranked 29th in the world by time.
Cabral hails from Glastonbury, Connecticut and ran track at Princeton University, where he majored in economics. Forced into the event by his coach, he won his second-ever steeplechase at the Penn Relays and went on to set the American collegiate record with a time of 8:19.14. Paste caught up with him as he prepared for the Olympics at altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona.
This has nothing to do with the fact that you’re about to become a two-time Olympian, but why is “Donn” spelled with two Ns?
In sixth grade, I decided to add a second N to the way I spelled my nickname. It used to always be “Don,” but I would write my name really quickly and sloppy, and a few times I added a second N and I decided I liked that.
How does one get into the steeplechase? Were you a hurdler who just wanted a way to cool off during races?
Steeplechasers generally are distance runners who either realize all their strengths aren’t being capitalized upon, or their team needs points in college or something like that. For me, it was kind of a combination of both. My college coach my sophomore year said, “I’ve seen you juggle a soccer ball, I’ve seen you shoot a basketball, you seem pretty athletic, you’re coordinated, I think the steeplechase would be a good match for you.”
I’d done it before Penn Relays, and I ran really poorly and I hated it, and he made me do it a second time. I wanted to quit, and he said, “Ok, do one more, then you can move on from the event if you don’t like it.” So I did one more steeplechase and I won Penn Relays, and I reluctantly loved it.
Is it daunting being an American in an event that Kenya has dominated for roughly the last thirty years?
I don’t know if it’s daunting. Honestly, the Diamond League races are the marquee events throughout the year in track and field, and there’s no restriction by country in those races, so a lot of times there’ll be nine or so Kenyans. And there aren’t nine Kenyans that are, probably, better than me, but there might more than three in any given year, and in the Olympics you’re only allowed three people per country. So even though they’re the best ones, I face fewer Kenyans than I do at most elite international meets I run, so it’s not something new to me. And as an American I’m fortunate enough to have Evan Jager in my events, who is one of the best in the world in the steeplechase right now, so all the competition I can handle is domestic, and I face it at many meets.
I’ve read about your use of an altitude tent. What is that, why have you used it, and is it true that you had one in your dorm room?
Yeah, I got one the start of my senior year of college. I bought one used off of Craigslist from a former Cornell rower who was living near Princeton. Set it up, figured out how to use it over the course of the year, then had to talk to the fire marshal, the trainer, the doctors. Basically, anybody who could have a reason to say no, I had to get their approval. I had to speak with the company that manufactured the tent to get it blessed by the fire marshals because it seems kinda like a fire hazard. But at the end of the day, when the tent is in operation, you can’t even light a flame in there because there’s such low oxygen. I’ll have a candle going in there sometimes while I’m reading, and once the altitude tent gets up to about 16 percent oxygen – as opposed to 21 percent oxygen, which is what you’re breathing right now, presumably – then the flame just goes out. So it actually is much safer, as far as fires go.
I assume you didn’t have roommates at the time?
I did. I was in a suite of 8. There was another room that had another altitude tent, because I had set a precedent that it was ok, so two of my other teammates put one in their room and they stayed in one as well.
Wow. So you did find it effective, then?
I did. I kept using it for a couple years. This year is my first year, I think, without using it at all. It’s just because in order to use the tent effectively, you’re supposed to spend 12 hours a night in it. And you know, nine or ten of them can be sleeping, but it still requires a lot of time to be spent in your room, basically in isolation. And it’s just a tough way to do it. It’s not very enjoyable.
So I just decided this year I was going spend the time and the money and go to altitude and actually do it the real way, so that’s why I’m in Flagstaff at the moment.
And I understand it’s been a long road back to qualification?
Well the obvious darkest moment was the year after the Olympics. I had been running well throughout the fall and winter and then I got sick – I had Lyme disease – and my training and races were just awful. After a couple good races, everything started to just plummet. So I had to reevaluate a lot of choices at that point.
You can bear pretty much anything when running is going well. I was able to really understand how I felt when I was running poorly. So that’s when I moved back to New Jersey, joined a team [there], and from there it’s been decently smooth going. I guess one of the biggest things I’ve had to develop was managing my life when I don’t have a thesis and classes to do, so being able to manage my time with my running and lifting and my therapy, and also, ideally, keeping my brain interested and developing. So that was something that I’m proud of, that I think I’ve done a good job of – building my life post-college.
Do you think it was easier not having to deal with a thesis and a rigorous course load and everything, or was it harder figuring out what to do when that’s all over?
I’d say to an extent it is easy to run in college at a high level. I think Princeton did a pretty good job of beating the energy out of me most days, but I think I’m the kind of person who runs better when he’s got something going on, something occupying him, and something my coach likes to stress in his athletes is do something other than just going to the track and running straight and turning left. Do something to keep yourself busy. Princeton was tough, but I think I got through it because I thrive on that.
So what, other than running, is occupying you now?
Well, I take Portuguese lessons with Berlitz, a company headquartered in Princeton. I take Portuguese lessons with them twice a week. I’ve been preparing for a trip to Brazil this summer, and it looks like it’s gonna pan out. I’ve been working on that. They’ve been teaching me Portuguese and even Russian, a little, every now and again. It’s what I minored in in college.
There’s definitely a time to just lay low and rest. As soon as this is over I’m going to take a nap, and I consider that part of my training.
That brings us to Rio. Having competed once and had a long four years in between, how did it feel when you finally qualified?
In the moment, I wish it felt better. The way that the qualifying race went was, I was in fifth place with half a lap to go, and I was struggling in fifth place. I wasn’t really biding my time with all the confidence in the world; I was thinking, am I watching my dreams slip through my fingers here? The guys in front of me started to show some signs of exhaustion, things got hairy over the final water jump. One guy went down, the other one couldn’t get steam back up, and I passed two people, nabbed that third spot on the final straightaway, and just felt like it wasn’t a great race on my behalf and it wasn’t the way I wanted to make the Olympic team the second time.
So it wasn’t everything I had dreamed of, and it was weird because I had to kind of convince myself to be happy. But once they put the American flag in my hand and I got to do a victory lap and I got to really enjoy the moment a little bit, it definitely improved quickly from there.
In London, you said you strategically took the lead early so you could avoid the shoving in the back of the pack and have a clear view of the people behind you on the jumbotron. Were you happy with that strategy? Is it something you’re going to try to do again?
I was happy with it. I don’t know if I’m going to do that again. I’ll be talking a little bit about that with my coaches for the next couple days and weeks. Part of it will depend on who’s in the race. There are certain types of people that are a little bit more reckless than others. First things first is the prelim, so you’ve got to figure out who’s gonna be in the race, because it depends on how the sorting goes, what heat you’re in.
I’m comfortable leading, but I’m also comfortable closing fast. I’ve seen in recent years a lot of people that have done really well at the highest level have run their races by starting out pretty far in the back. I know that I’m athletic enough and I proved in the trials that if someone goes down I can get around it, I think, better than most. So if I have to run from the back, I’ll be ready for it, but that conversation has not happened yet.
Is it true that you memorized the periodic table and the capital of every country before you were 10?
There’s a lot of information on the periodic table, so I don’t know if I really memorized the whole thing. If you’d given me any two letters I could have told you what they were, but I could only recite the first thirty or so.
I’ll give you a pass for that.
Countries, I did at one point. There was a day when I went through them all, and I remember standing up on my bed at night after my parents had turned the light off. I had a big map with every country’s flag there. I went through, I looked at every flag and said the name and said the capital, and I got through every one. I don’t think I could have probably done that two days later with 100 percent success, but there was a day when I could name the capital of every country in the world.
That’s more than most people can say. Are you confident you know the capital of Brazil?
I can! That was almost a trick question, because everything’s been so Rio, Rio, Rio, but it is, indeed, Brasilia.
Well done. That was my test.
If I was ten minutes closer to my nap I might have said Rio de Janeiro.