Photo by James Cole

NCAA Track and Field champion Donn Cabral has reached some serious heights for a 22-year-old. Not only did Cabral graduate from Princeton University this past spring, he also secured one of only three U.S. slots for the 2012 Men’s Olympic Steeplechase. Needless to say, he’s pretty stoked. But he’s got a handful of smart tactics to keep himself grounded — both on and off the track. Here, Cabral shares the tricks and tips that keep him in the game (think: motivational mantras and an altitude tent). Plus: How he overcame a slew of injuries and a lull in his athletic career.

What exactly does a steeplechase involve?

I get asked this all the time! It’s like the horse racing event by the same name — though most people haven’t heard of this either — minus the horses. Basically, a steeplechase is a 3000-meter race on a track that involves jumping over barriers. There are five per lap, making a total of 35 jumps throughout the race. One of these five barriers has a water pit one foot after it that’s two-feet deep. And, no, having wet shoes doesn’t bother me.

How did you get into the sport — or, really, when did you find out steeplechasing even existed?

I was a big soccer and basketball player throughout middle school. Then in high school I became a distance runner, and [later] went to college for it. During my sophomore year, my coach Steve Dolan suggested hurdling and had me race in a steeplechase event. I hated it. I told my coach I didn’t want to do it again but he convinced me to try it one more time. The second time — this was at Penn Relays in 2010 — I ended up really enjoying it. I won, and I took seven seconds off my time.

Then several years later, you receive the Olympic bid in steeplechase for the 2012 London games. How are you preparing for the event?

Once I’m in Europe, my routine will be a little different, but so far the training I do is similar to how I would train for a 5K. I do a lot of hurdle drills: I set up six hurdles at 33 inches high without much space between them (about two or three yards apart). I’ll walk through them, bring the knee of my lead leg up, and snap my trail leg as if I was jumping — to commit the correct form to muscle memory. Then I’ll space the hurdles further apart, skip alongside them, pop my lead leg up and down over them (again, to simulate the right form). I’ll repeat from the beginning, this time snapping my trail leg over the hurdles a few times. I’ll continue to space out the hurdles and increase their height, working into a normal run-through at race height (42 inches).

I also do plyometrics to build up strength and form — drills like butt kicks and high knees. To build explosive leg muscles and nail home my form, I also do an exercise called “bounding,” where you try to go as far and as high as you can with each stride while running.

Do you follow a particular diet or work with a nutritionist?

I don’t work with a nutritionist. I’m pretty stubborn about eating what I like. I don’t follow a specific diet, but I do limit refined sugars and processed food when I’m gearing up for a race, or when training starts to get serious.

Photo by James Cole

What about alcohol?

Early on in my college career, that was definitely something I needed to keep an eye on. As I started having more success with running, though, it became easier to stay focused and drink less. I don’t think that one or two beers every now and then is a bad thing, but, in general, if you want to be faster, drinking is not something you’ll want to do on a regular basis.

And your weakness foods?

I don’t have too much of a problem with a particular food. I’ll eat almost anything, so my biggest concern is being in a situation where food is unlimited. This was especially hard at school, where everything in the dining hall was buffet style (dessert trays included). My biggest challenge is to restrain myself from taking full advantage of that kind of availability.

Have you ever been injured while competing in, or training for, a steeplechase event?

Yes. I’ve fallen three times during steeplechase events. Two weren’t necessarily painful, but they happened during national championships which wasn’t good. The third time was during the last hurdle of a race. As I was jumping up to the hurdle, the heel of my lead foot struck the barrier. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I basically rolled off the hurdle and sprawled out in front of the crowd. But I got up — with a little bid of wounded pride — finished the race, and ended up winning. Though I couldn’t run for two or three days after, because my bones were so bruised.

Aside from falling a few times, have you encountered any major setbacks throughout your athletic career?

Towards the end of high school, I had about a year-and-a-half-long running lull. It started during the home stretch of the Foot Locker Cross Country High School Championships. With only half a mile to go I started losing steam. I finished eighth — and I was physically and emotionally crushed by the defeat. I really struggled to get back into running again. Despite being very focused, I kept getting injured (I tore my plantar fascia, on the arch of my left foot), and I ended up missing the first season of cross-country as a college freshman. I wasn’t running very well in the winter, and I wasn’t running well in the spring. I finally started getting better in sophomore year — I got more into running, began steepling, and all of a sudden I just kind of caught fire. My pace picked up to four minutes a mile, I started running 5Ks again, and I got back to where I’d been mentally early in high school … Even when things weren’t going well, I was still training, putting in hours, and trying to get out of that slump. I think eventually the training caught up with me in a good way — it finally started to pay off.

What keeps you going now?

Most of my inspiration comes from within, but I definitely wouldn’t have been able to stick with my training, or be comfortable in my athletic pursuits, if my mom and dad hadn’t made training as easy as it could be — if they hadn’t helped make sure I went for runs on family vacations. They never got upset with me for taking time out to train.

It also helps to have friends whose aspirations are similarly aligned with my own. I would have felt like an outsider if I’d been a lone person aspiring for greatness without the support of my family, friends, coaches [Peter Oviatt and Steve Dolan], and teammates. I never would have been able to sustain my motivation. I wouldn’t have had anything or anyone to keep me going.

Can you let us in on any other training secrets of yours?

This past year, I started using an altitude tent — a device you zip around your bed that pumps air with less oxygen in it. It’s supposed to stimulate living at higher altitudes and it helps train the body to be more efficient with its use of oxygen. It’s been kind of miserable during the summer heat, but I wanted to make sure I did everything I could to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. I have no idea if it’s contributed to my success, but it certainly hasn’t hurt me. I’ve tried to spend 12 hours a day in there, eight of which include sleeping.

I also have about two dozen note cards that I’ve written a positive affirmation or phrase on. Before a race, I’ll run through them and pull out one or two to repeat in my head during the pre-race warm-up and throughout the actual race itself. One that I’ve been using a lot lately, during these last couple of races: “I am more trained and better trained than my competitors.” It’s helped remind me that my success isn’t about luck, it’s about being prepared. If winning races was about luck, I’d get nervous. But there’s no need to be nervous if a race is just going to show who’s the best trained. As long as I repeat to myself that that’s me, I’ll come into the competition with an air of composure.

UPDATE: On August 3rd, Cabral qualified for the Men’s 2012 Olympic 3,000-meter steeplechase final, placing fourth at 8:21.46!

Keep your eyes peeled for Donn’s next appearance at 9:25 pm BST on August 5th on NBC. Sign up for alerts on this and other Olympic events at

What’s the one Olympic event you’re looking forward to most? Tell us in the comments below!