A recent tweet quoting Rai Benjamin, the 21-year-old Collegiate Record holder who is history’s equal third-fastest 400 hurdler, summed up an end and a beginning, the final curtain on a bureaucratic holding pattern, for Benjamin’s transfer of allegiance from Antigua to the U.S. and the go signal for his life as a professional athlete.
“I started the transfer of allegiance process almost three years ago, and when it came through in early October it felt like reaching a finish line. Of course in reality it’s just the start line, the beginning of a new chapter” @_Kingben_
“I started the transfer of allegiance process almost three years ago, and when it came through in early October it felt like reaching a finish line. Of course in reality it’s just the start line, the beginning of a new chapter” @_Kingben_ ?
— IAAF (@iaaforg) January 8, 2019
Start line, indeed. Benjamin’s prospects as the starter’s pistol cracks for his pro career stir the blood of Stateside fans. He’s 100% American now in the eyes of officialdom and cleared to compete in the colors of Team USA.
All the anticipation now concerns Benjamin on the oval. He’ll contest one to perhaps as many as three indoor races—no official announcements quite yet—and then the outdoor campaign in which hurdle matchups with Abderrahmane Samba are high up on the sport’s wait list. “Of course, when it comes down to the championship part of the season,” says Benjamin, an athlete with world-class ability in the 200 and flat 400 as well, “I’m going to run the 400 hurdles, for sure.” His intent from the perspective of January is to also step out against Samba on the Diamond League Circuit well ahead of a hoped-for World Champs faceoff in Doha: “Yeah, I’m pretty sure we’re definitely going to meet before then. Probably a few times head to head before then.”
Although both ran in Paris last year—Benjamin’s 200 PR coming in the same meet as Samba’s 46.98—Samba and Benjamin have never clashed, and if they’re to hook up on this year’s DL Circuit, the first opportunity would be Shanghai on May 18. The other DL meets with men’s 400H comps are Stockholm (May 30), Oslo (June 13), Stanford (June 29), Birmingham (August 18) and the final in Zürich (August 29), with the interval to the Doha heats (September 27) nearly a full month.
Does any of this intimidate Benjamin? “No, not at all,” he says. “I like competing. I feel like, especially in this sport, people love the excitement and it’s good for the sport to see. Why not have two of the best compete to see what might happen?”
When Benjamin—with flat PRs of 19.99 and 44.64—isn’t racing over hurdles, he has options and hopes to explore all of them. “Whatever I can,” he says. “I mean why limit myself? The flat events,” he adds, “are all very complimentary because my 2 helps my 4 and my 4 helps my 400 hurdles. That’s the way I look at it. If there are certain meets where I can’t run the 400 hurdles, I run the 400, and if there are meets where I can’t run either, I’ll run the 200.”
Maybe even the 100, which he hasn’t raced in peak form since high school. “I asked Coach Caryl [Smith Gilbert],” he says. “She’s not budging right now but hopefully she lets me run the 100 because I’m really excited to do that. I think I got a solid 9.9 in me. On a good day, when it’s hot [laughs].”
As fans chew the fat about the year’s prospects—this happens at meets, on social media and message boards, and occasionally over a beer—it is often suggested that Samba, No. 2 on the all-time list, and Benjamin might push each other into World Record territory. But it is important to bear in mind that peak 400H marks are rarely approached more than once in a season. WR holder Kevin Young produced his pre-record best, 47.63, in the semis just a day before his standard smasher in the Barcelona Olympics. When Edwin Moses, the last 400 hurdler to break the record more than once, first took the mark into sub-47.20 territory (47.13 in ’80), he cut an even half-second from his prior best. When Samuel Matete, No. 5 on the ATL, hit his 47.10 PR in ’91, the occasion marked an 0.6 chop from his fastest time before that.
Benjamin, having dropped from 48.33 at the ’17 NCAA to 47.98 at last year’s West Regional ahead of his jaw-dropper 2 weeks later, understands how that works. “I think everyone needs to be realistic because [any DL meeting with Samba will be] early in the season and to be breaking the World Record that early in the season, it’s not necessarily logical because this year we have to run all the way through [to September 30 for the WC final]. So I feel like everyone needs to keep things in perspective and just understand that it’s a process and we’re set to peak at a certain point in the year. Whenever we [may] race isn’t the point where we peak or the point where we need to run fast enough to break the World Record. So I mean I’m definitely looking forward to the competition. It definitely raises the bar for the both of us and it will definitely help the both of us get to the next tier, that 46 tier.”
As a first-year Nike pro—as is well known, he is foregoing the ’19 collegiate season—Benjamin is training in familiar surroundings on the practice oval where he reaped fitness last year. Joanna Hayes, having resigned her position as a USC assistant, serves as his coach of record, but the rest of the Trojan staff that guided Benjamin remain in his corner as well. “Yeah, they all are going to be doing the same thing,” he says. “During the fall they all were out at practice. Coach [Quincy] Watts is very much a stickler on technique as well as Coach Caryl, and Coach Hayes is a facilitator. She is amazing on technique and paying attention to detail and stuff like that. So they all play their part in giving something to each and every one of us in the group.” Said group consists of Benjamin, 400 CR-setter Michael Norman, women’s indoor 400 CR-setter Kendall Ellis plus Trojan alums Aleec Harris, Beejay Lee and Ricky Morgan.
As he readies himself for ’19, Benjamin has no regrets he never met Samba in ’18. “No, not at all,” he says. “I had fun; it was a rough year, I had a [right] mid-foot sprain so I kind of had to deal with that leading into Pac-12s and Regionals and the NCAA. So just to kind of get a break from all that explosive movement and pounding on my foot [from hurdling] was kind of a relief. But it was definitely exciting to see Samba run. Sometimes I wish I would have run but it’s all about perspective and it had been a long season. I had so many races on me and it was just a wise decision to run the 200.”
Racing half-laps at the Paris (19.99) and Lausanne (20.16), his last two outings wearing USC kit, “was a great experience,” Benjamin says. “I mean the crowd was just electrifying. It was one of those things where you step out onto the big stage and it’s like, ‘Man, this is every single meeting.’ It was just eye opening because, you know, you’re on the collegiate level and you have some meets that aren’t necessarily that high profile. At the high-profile meets you get that, you know, that anxiety, that butterfly feeling. But that’s literally every single meet on the tour in Europe. It was good that I had that experience because now I know what to expect. Now I won’t be so anxious—because I get anxious and I get excited and I just want to go out there and sometimes I kind of take myself too high up. And the come-down, it’s just crazy, I just get exhausted. But it was definitely eye opening. It was a lot of fun and I got to do it with my teammate Mike. I mean it’s something I look forward to this spring and all summer.”
Benjamin’s foot sprain last season slipped mostly beneath the public radar and affected a foot he had fractured in ’16, his first collegiate season at UCLA, SC’s crosstown rival. That break, he allows, declining to offer details, resulted from “just being stupid and being a freshman in college.” Lingering weakness in the injured extremity came up to bite him in his first hurdle practice of ’18.
“I hurt it and it was definitely hard to practice. I had to sit out for a week or two and it was just hard to get back into that motion, get back into that rhythm.” Benjamin stepped out for his second hurdles meet of the year at the Pac-12 and ran a 49.84 heat, 12-stepping part of the way to his own great surprise before dropping a 48.46 final. “I was in so much pain at Pac-12s,” Benjamin says, “I couldn’t even describe it. It hurt a lot. I had my foot wrapped the entire time. That’s why we didn’t run the 4×4 and why we didn’t close out the meet. Pac-12s was a rough meet for all of us [USC athletes], in all honesty. Everyone was pretty banged up.
“I think that was part of the reason why I embraced going 12s because it kind of took the pressure off my right foot. If I go 13s I land with my right but if I go 12s I land with my left so it was just one of those things where it was new to me but I didn’t really mind it because it was taking so much pressure off that foot that it was just OK.”
Benjamin’s hurdle training for the year, he says, “was very minimal. Before Pac-12s I think I had like a week, just one week, where I hurdled one time and Coach Hayes set up the little plastic hurdles on the lowest setting ever and I was basically just walking over them at practice. It was frustrating because I know this isn’t going to help but I don’t have a choice because my foot hurts a lot. I ended up sucking it up again and finally hurdling at [the USC–UCLA dual] and opened up at a 49-high. That was frustrating because what I was doing in practice, my fitness level, didn’t translate to 49-high, but it was also a dual meet and it wasn’t that demanding.
“I would say I didn’t really get a lot of practices this year doing 400 hurdles due to my foot. I mean there were some weeks where I would have a really hard practice on a Wednesday and the next day my foot would be swollen and in pain, and I just had to sit the next day and ice it and wait for it to calm down again to go reflare it again the next week.”
Where in the world, then, did the 47.02 come from?
“Our base training was pretty good,” Benjamin says. “I ended up doing a lot of grass runs. I’d bounce back and forth between Coach Watts and Coach Hayes and sometimes Coach Caryl. When I couldn’t hurdle I was always with Coach Watts so I was doing a lot of quartermile work, a lot of volume stuff like that. So he really facilitated me keeping my fitness at a certain level. And also having Michael Norman at practice.” When the coaches let the two stars run alongside each other.
“We practiced together all fall until we got to our intra-squad meet and I blew up,” Benjamin says. “That’s when they decided, ‘These guys are going at it and we need to split them up.’ So Mike would run with Ricky and I would run with Zach [Shinnick]. So that’s how they did it and we’d only run together if there’s a really important meet coming up and Mike needed to know what pace he needs to be on and I needed to know what pace I needed to be on to run some things. It was the rarest of occasions, but for the most part if we are running together Coach Watts does give a lot of instruction and he’s constantly talking to you as you’re running, telling us, ‘You guys are going too fast.’”
Process all that, pray that Benjamin stays healthy in ’19, and sit back and wait. A mind-bending year in the 400 hurdles may be coming right up.