Glastonbury runner Donn Cabral chasing down Olympic dream

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Sometimes Donn Cabral can’t help but imagine the finish line at the U.S. Olympic trials.

“I’ve started to have those days where I’ll be out on a run or doing a workout and I’ll start daydreaming and a couple times I’ve envisioned the last 100 meters of the Olympic trials, coming over the last barrier, neck and neck with one of my rivals, and just imagining my feet landing right after the last barrier and having to accelerate and push deep down to get back up to speed to outsprint the other guy in the last 100 meters,” Cabral said.

That he imagines it with so much detail is not surprising. Cabral is someone who must plan his every move.

Glastonbury native Donn Cabral celebrates after winning the college men's 4 x mile championship of America during the Penn Relays athletics meet Saturday, April 28, 2012 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Glastonbury native Donn Cabral celebrates after winning the college men’s 4 x mile championship of America during the Penn Relays athletics meet Saturday, April 28, 2012 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Cabral, who graduated from Glastonbury High in 2008, is attempting to make his second Olympics when he competes at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., starting July 4 with a preliminary race. In the 2012 Olympics, fresh off graduation from Princeton, he was eighth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, an event that combines running, hurdling and jumping over a water pit on a track.

At 26, much has changed from four years ago. He has a new coach, a new team and a new hometown. But the desire is the same. So is his belief in mind and body being equal partners in an arduous journey that escapes the American sports fans’ consciousness in between Olympics. Fans jump in for two weeks; Cabral lives it for four years.

“I’ve been through a lot and I like to think that I’m finding my homeostasis as a professional runner,” Cabral said. “I’m finding what works for me off the track, what works for me in having my support system and keeping in touch with them, and what works for me in terms of coaching and training partners. And what works for me in terms of the nuts and bolts and the style of training we do.”

If he finishes in the top three at the trials in the steeplechase final on July 8, he makes the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“In 2012, I thought if I did everything right and if I had a good race, I would make the team,” Cabral said. “This year I think there’s a lot more competition for those top three spots. I think I’m still a favorite, but I feel like there is more pressure. It is a lot more hotly contested, which make the daydreams inject that much more adrenaline into my system.”

Cabral now runs for the New Jersey-New York Club and is coached by Frank Gagliano, well-known in Olympic circles. Cabral ran 8:24.94 and finished 10th in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the World Championship in Beijing last summer and was the runner-up at the U.S. Outdoor championships last year in 8:13.37.

He is far from the Connecticut high school phenom who caught everyone’s attention by setting state records in track and cross country, and a long way away from Princeton, where he set the American collegiate record in the steeplechase. He has a Nike contract, which he signed before the 2012 trials and financially allows Cabral to pursue the Olympics once again. He lives in a house in Clinton, N.J., with seven other runners, each of whom has Olympic aspirations.

On this May day at Voorhees High School in Glen Gardner, N.J., Cabral does speedwork — 800 meters nine times with two minutes rest in between. He washes down a roast beef sub with rooibos tea, a caffeine-free drink he got hooked on after a trip to South Africa with his mother, Deborah Hedaway.

“I think mentally I have a different outlook on track and field than I did four years ago,” Cabral says. “Four years ago, my life was revolving around that I wanted to make the Olympic team, and I was going to do everything I could and that was all I could see. Now, I get excited about applying to grad schools and where cool races are that I can travel to.”

He has taken Portuguese classes at Princeton because since that is the main language in Rio.

He says he’s found a good middle ground between running and his other interests. But he says he trains as hard as ever, and “when it comes to race day I’m still giving it all I can.”

After winning the Newport 10k in Jersey City on May 14, Cabral headed to Flagstaff, Ariz., for the final leg of his training at altitude, where he was joined by his former Glastonbury High School coach, Peter Oviatt.

In March, had Cabral surprised Oviatt by asking him if he would come out and help with his training. He wanted Oviatt to watch over the “little things,” such as helping with nutrition, proper sleep, stretching, relaxation. Cabral said he wanted Oviatt to help make sure he was living “the best possible lifestyle for making the Olympic team.”

After the 2012 Olympics, Cabral moved from Glastonbury to Bellingham, Wash., to train with Oviatt, who had left Glastonbury for the West in 2007.

Cabral was content for a while. He was running solid times and enjoying his time back with his first mentor in the running world. But eventually, he slumped. And there were physical problems: He was showing symptoms of Lyme disease in the spring of 2013 (he had been diagnosed originally in grade school).

Oviatt started to notice something was wrong, too. In March and April, Cabral’s workout results were nowhere near where they should have been. After a trip to Park City, Utah, for training and a disappointing sixth place finish at the U.S. Championships, Cabral returned to the East Coast. He needed to recover from Lyme, taking a week off after the season and then having an easy buildup to training once he came back.

There was also another reason for the move back East. Once he started to run poorly out West, Cabral said, he realized he had only been happy in his running life.

Princeton's Donn Cabral leads during the final lap of the men's 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships, Saturday, June 9, 2012, at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Princeton’s Donn Cabral leads during the final lap of the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships, Saturday, June 9, 2012, at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

“It took getting sick and losing the running to realize that I wanted to be somewhere I was happy as a whole person,” Cabral said. “In Washington, I didn’t have access to my support system, my college friends, my high school friends, and my family. And I didn’t have a team.”

In Bellingham, Cabral was running by himself.

“It is pretty isolated,” Oviatt said. “There weren’t any other Olympians within 100 miles of him. … He needed people there to run with.”

Oviatt knew moving to New Jersey was for the best for Cabral, too.

“(Oviatt is) someone who, even though it would be best for his career if I were his athlete, all he wants is what is best for me,” Cabral said. “He even reached out to some connections he had. He took it very well and I think he knew I still trusted his opinions on a lot of things.”

Cabral decided to join the New Jersey-New York track club and train under Gagliano, who has molded many Olympians. He moved back from Washington in May 2013.

“It was a no-brainer on my part — it was the best decision,” Oviatt said. “You need to be where you’re the healthiest, have a good coach and have a team. All signs pointed to New Jersey-New York track club. It was like, ‘Wow you have the opportunity to work with a great coach and be close to home.’ I couldn’t be happier with how things thing turned out.”

After recovering from the Lyme disease and settling into his new home in Clinton, N.J., Cabral began to see the changes he had hoped for. He was running better, happier as a whole.

“In college one of my best friends and teammates, Joe Stilin, used to talk about his happiness theorem, which was that a runner runs his best when he’s happy,” Cabral said. “So sometimes if a decision doesn’t seem like the best thing for running but makes you happy, it is worth it for you.”

Gagliano, 79, played a big role in that. He has coached at all levels, including high school and college. He was the director of track and field at Rutgers and Georgetown and later became the founder of the Nike Farm Team in Palo Alto, Calif., and the first coach for the Oregon Track Club.

“He knows what he is doing as a coach, but what makes him one of the best at what he does is his ability to lead and be a guide for us,” Cabral said. “He’s like the godfather of track and field. When you’re at a meet every agent, every coach, athlete from 18 years old to 60 years old seems to know him and come over and shake his hand.

“The first time I met him I went in to give him a handshake and he just came in for the real thing, and nuzzled in for this big hug. I was excited to join his club and wanted a handshake, then I realized this is the kind of emotion and the care he puts into his athletes and that’s why people like running with him.”

Cabral’s home in New Jersey is about three hours from Glastonbury.

There’s a tiny main street in Clinton with coffee shops and ice cream parlors. There’s a bridge overlooking a rushing river, where tourists and residents come and take pictures late in the day. There’s a farm-to-table restaurant by the river with outdoor seating.

“Clinton kind of has the feel of a small New England town,” Cabral said. “It basically feels like home.”

It is ideal for running.

“One of the reasons why Clinton was so good is because it has trails, it is a reasonable place to be in terms of being close to a track, it is reasonable for my coach to get to, but also it is removed,” Cabral said. “We’re in a place where we can live among runners who all want to be the best they can be and affect each other positively.”

Six of the men in the house are training to make the U.S. team and another is training for the Irish team. Travis Mahoney is training to make the steeplechase with Cabral. Kyle Merber, Ford Palmer and Johnny Gregorek (who’s father won the Manchester Road Race four times) are training for the 1,500 meters. Declan Murray is hoping to run the 800 meters for Ireland and Brian Gagnon (who went to UConn) is training for the 800 meters for the U.S.

“My team is an extremely diverse group of personalities,” Cabral said. “Seven of us guys live in this house together in Clinton, and it is seven strong personalities all together under one roof and miraculously that roof hasn’t collapsed on us yet. . They’ve definitely grown from teammates to friends.”

All working for a similar goal: A spot in Rio for the Olympics.

When he was 6, Cabral asked his dad John to hold a flag at a local swim meet to make him feel like an Olympian.

Now Cabral knows what it is like to be an Olympian. He wants to feel it again.


Information from: Hartford Courant,

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