Benjamin’s Fast Flight Of Hurdles Puts Him Among Legendary Names

A 47.02 has Rai Benjamin tied with Edwin Moses and behind only Kevin Young on the all-time list. (MIKE SCOTT)

“Rai Benjamin tying the great Edwin Moses. I mean just to even be mentioned in the same breath with Edwin Moses is just a tremendous feat and tremendous compliment. Collegiate Record holder, world leader.”

That was USC assistant Quincy Watts summing up the magnitude of his Trojan soph’s CR 47.02. Equaling the erstwhile WR of Moses—he of 103 straight victories in the ’70s and ’80s—is not something anyone would casually expect of a 20-year-old.

But Benjamin had just become the 400 hurdles’ equal-second fastest ever, making believers of anyone who might have questioned his comment after churning 48.46 at the Pac-12 in May: “I wanted to go 47, preferably 46, but I mean I’ll take what I can get, there’s no rush.”

Smiling in a solid rainstorm that opened up, having saved its full wrath for the post-meet awards ceremonies, Benjamin said of making good on his goal, “It felt great. Just crossing the finish line and seeing the 47.02 kind of just solidified my confidence in the race so I’m extremely happy about it, extremely proud about it and it can only go up from there.”

Just ask Caryl Smith Gilbert; there is reason to believe Benjamin. “I didn’t know that he was gonna go that fast in these conditions,” said the Trojan head coach, “but I did know that he hasn’t been able to hurdle more than 4 or 5 days the whole season because the top of his foot was a little sore. He sprained it coming off of one of the hurdle practices so we had to kind of back him off and run him flat more and run him over 30-inch hurdles. So he’s not even close to what I think he could do. That’s what’s really scary.”

Watts concurs: “That’s what makes it so amazing, the fact that we really took our time with him. He twisted his ankle right before Mt. SAC. Mt. SAC was his opener in the 400 so for him to have the kind of season he’s had has been just tremendous because he hasn’t had the best training all year. But he has had quality training and then with his special gifts the sky’s the limit, as we saw here.” (continues)

Picking up an injury “ wasn’t the best feeling,” Benjamin allowed, “but I got through it and [the training] was enough for me to finish out the season. So I’m happy to be healthy and happy to keep running.”

Among other—errr—hurdles Benjamin had to work around this spring was inability because of the injury to devote a lot of practice time to perfecting his race pattern. No wonder he was caught by surprise when he spontaneously 12-stepped some barriers in his Pac-12 heat.

For his momentous final here Benjamin, who stands 6-3¼ (1.91), strove to reign in his stride and avoided the still-new ability to alternate lead legs. Not without some difficulty.

“13s, I almost went 12s so I tried to keep it 13s,” he said. “It felt somewhat smooth. I kind of had to fight myself sticking to 13s and stay patient, just staying with my race plan. I went over it a lot with Coach [Joanna] Hayes and Coach Caryl and Coach Watts. I just trusted them and trusted my fitness. I came home and my race was perfect.”

And patient, this T&FN writer offered in response.

“Did it seem like it to you?” Benjamin asked. “I think that was the most patient I’ve been all season.”

And his blockbuster time? ”I knew it was always there, my coach knew it was always there,” he said. “It was just a matter of figuring out the race pattern. We’re still figuring it out and I think as I run the races and keep executing my race plan it will come together.”

A dual citizen of the U.S. (where he was born) and Antigua now hoping to get past the IAAF’s current moratorium on national allegiance transfers, Benjamin will not be able to compete at the USATF Championships this year. But as a newly minted pro (“I decided it’s time to take it to the next stage”) he has aspirations for the Diamond League circuit, and not only in the hurdles.

“I kind of want to run the 200 and just see what I can do,” he explained. “I think I’m a pretty versatile athlete and I think I can do a couple of other events. We’ll see, I’ll have to sit down and talk with my coaches and we’ll see.”

The wider world, too, will be watching attentively.