This piece, on the tremendous program at Princeton, is second in weekly series, written by Dave Hunter. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Princeton’s Track & Field Journey
Cabral’s Break-Out Spring Highlights
Princeton’s Drive For National Recognition
by Dave Hunter
Friday night at the USATF Oxy High Performance Meet in Los Angeles, Princeton senior Donn Cabral turned in a stunning performance by winning the 3000 meter steeplechase over a star-studded field. The sole collegian in the fast section of the steeple, Cabral displayed a poised and tactical racing approach that saw him patiently running his own race in the middle of the pack for most of the race. Moving up over the last three laps and kicking hard over the final furlong, Cabral overtook Dan Huling and Evan Jager – who took an unplanned dip after clearing the final water jump – to capture the win in a record time.
The Princetonian’s winning mark of 8:19.14 not only established a new Princeton and Ivy League record, it also represents a new American Collegiate Record – taking down the old standard of 8:19.27 set by Weber State’s Farley Gerber way back in 1984.
In vanquishing a covey of elite Americans who had gathered on the Occidental campus in search of the prized Olympic steeple “A” standard [8:23.1], Cabral bested a bevy of talented runners such as Huling, Jager, Billy Nelson, and Steve Slattery – all of whom have previously qualified for either U.S. Olympic or World Championship teams. Cabral’s winning time is the fastest in the nation this year and thrusts him into the forefront of a growing number of legitimate contenders for the three steeplechase positions on the U.S. Olympic team.
Prior to this spring, only ardent track and field fans were likely to be familiar with Cabral’s prior accomplishments. True, in the past two years, he has been the only Div I athlete to score NCAA points in both the steeple [2nd both years] and the 5000 – a very tough double. Only the most rabid track fans dig for and appreciate track stats that granular.
But this spring has been quite different. After All-American seasons last fall in cross country and this past winter in indoor track, the Princeton senior hit the outdoor season ready to go. Last month at the Penn Relay Carnival, Cabral unleashed stirring anchor legs on the Tigers’ winning DMR and 4 x mile relay teams – distinguishing Princeton as the first school to pull off that double at Penn in 51 years. He has since built on that success: with a double win [10,000 and steeple] at the Heps Championships earlier this month; followed by his break-through steeple win at Oxy. This Tiger is roaring.
And while Donn Cabral and his magical senior outdoor season – and it’s far from over yet – has proved to be the marquee story of this year’s Princeton track and field team, it should be underscored that Princeton’s track & field program is blessed with many athletes performing at high levels. “We have four guys [Cabral, Joe Stilin, Trevor Van Ackeren, and recovering Peter Callahan] who can run under 4:00 for the mile,” notes Fred Samara, the Tigers’ long-standing head coach of track and field. And Princeton’s stand-outs excel in areas other than the distance events. Dave Slovenski has vaulted 16′ 8Â¾”. Super sophomore Conor McCullough has a collegiate leading mark of 242′ 9Â¾” in the hammer and is the odds-on favorite to win the NCAA title. Stilin [13:38 in the 5000;3:39 in the 1500] and Van Ackeren [3:39 in the 1500] not only are likely to earn podiumpositions at the NCAA championship meet, but also are tantalizingly close to qualifying for the Olympic Trials. Indeed a full complement of 17 Princeton athletes will be traveling to Jacksonville this weekend for the NCAA Div I Preliminary Championship Competition. “This is the best, well-rounded team I have ever had,” adds Samara.
There is a perhaps more compelling back story to tell about track and field at Princeton University. Few American universities, if any, can claim a longer and more storied track and field heritage than Princeton. Collegiate track and field is said to have originated at Princeton in the mid-1870’s. Over the past 140 years, a number of gifted performers have excelled for the orange and black. In the 1930’s, Bill Bonthron set the American record in the mile and the world record in the 1500 as a Princeton undergraduate. Later on, Craig Masback developed into one of the world’s top middle distance runners in the 1980’s. More recently, Tiger high jumper Tora Harris has won several national collegiate and professional titles.
This heritage – and heritage is accorded utmost respect at Princeton University – is fully appreciated by Samara and his accomplished distance coach Steve Dolan. Quietly, and without fanfare, Samara, Dolan, and the rest of the Tiger coaching staff have been building a track and field program that is coming into full bloom. More than just a strong Ivy League team, or a power limited to the East Coast, the Princeton University track and field program is now emerging as a more fully-balanced, properly-trained, highly-disciplined group of athletes that is well equipped to compete effectively at virtually any college venue across the country.
The Tiger track & field program is not likely to be content to rest on its laurels. Noting that its incoming class of recruits looks, “pretty good,” Samara says that “it [Princeton’s emergence] is like a snowball rolling downhill; we have good momentum going now. Our goal is to become one of the best teams in the country.”
Not lost in all of this are the teachable moments that wise coaches like Samara look for – those rare and often-fleeting instants when a coach can effectively connect with the athlete to make a point that transcends the sport. And with all of the media attention and opportunity for distraction that comes with success, Coach Samara is not likely to allow his athletes to drift away from the underlying principles that have served as the foundation of the Princeton program. Notes Samara, “Our program is about teaching our athletes to learn to ‘believe in yourself.'” Several times this season there has been evidence that Samara’s message has been embraced by his charges. After anchoring the Tigers to victory in the 4 x mile relay at Penn to complete the rare distance double,Cabral observed, “We did a really good job of keeping our composure, and we dealt with the pressure that was on our back. To a man, we competed well and stayed levelheaded. That was more of a feat than any of our times, or our kicks, or anything like that.” Samara’s track and field athletes who learn those types of lessons will possess valuable tools that will help them be successful not only in track and field, but also in life.