The “Old Rai” Steps Out Toward Paris

At the DL Final Rai Benjamin rebooted his confidence for the coming Olympic season. (THOMAS FERNANDEZ/IMAGE OF SPORT)

AS DARKLY SELF-CRITICAL as he can be, Rai Benjamin offers this ray of optimism. Asked about the Paris Olympics, he says, “Taking Rai Benjamin for the win in 2024.”

Perhaps no one currently in track & field — no one of Benjamin’s stature — has been so repeatedly denied. Silver at Doha 2019. Silver at Tokyo 2021. Silver at Oregon 2022. Bronze at Budapest 2023.

With the ’23 season now a wrap, he is the second-fastest ever in the 400H. It is a distinction he held as long ago as 2018.

At the Prefontaine Classic, Benjamin became the fastest man of ’23. On September 16 he dropped a time of 46.39, beating Karsten Warholm. A Diamond League record and No. 4 time ever, the performance capped a tumultuous year for Benjamin, who was reluctant to take satisfaction in such affirmation.

“Means nothing,” he said. “I didn’t do it at Worlds, and I didn’t do it at the Olympics. It’s Diamond League final. But no one is ever going to remember Diamond League champion. Everyone is going to remember Olympic champion.”

He did not want to race again at Eugene, weary from a 6-month outdoor season and a lingering quadriceps injury. After a May 05 victory at Doha, he didn’t race for 2 months, doing rehab that included a trip to a doctor in Germany. Then, at the USATF Championships, he won in 46.62. Then, no more races until the World Championships, where he placed 3rd in 47.56.

Additionally, Benjamin has said he struggled to adjust to the loss of longtime training partner Michael Norman, who changed coaches in the spring.

At Pre, Warholm’s 46.53 was faster than the Norwegian’s Budapest-winning time of 46.89. When asked what happened, Warholm replied: “Really, nothing happened.” Benjamin simply beat him.

Such outcomes are rare. Before Budapest (and excluding a DNF), Warholm was 31–1 in 400H races since ’18 — the one loss was at the ’22 Worlds, where he placed 7th coming off injury. The Nordic star’s two consecutive losses in Zürich and now the DL Final are anomalous versus recent history.

Of Benjamin, Warholm said, “Of course, there’s a rivalry, and both of us want to win. And now that both of us are on this level, it’s crazy.”

Benjamin is coached in Los Angeles by two Olympic gold medalists — Quincy Watts and Joanna Hayes — and they favored a post-Worlds race. Hayes said she did not want the Nike-sponsored hurdler to end the season as he did at Budapest.

“I think when you are injured, you are tired, when things aren’t going the way you want, you kind of just want to say, ‘I’ll just get ready for next year,’” she said. “But coming here, he had to rest and train a little bit.”

Moreover, Hayes said Benjamin ran a signature workout — resembling his Pre victory — that he had not run before Budapest. During Pre warmups, Watts called Benjamin aside and told him he wanted to see “the old Rai.” That is, the Rai who accelerated out of the turn like an Alpine skier finishing a downhill.

That was Benjamin’s former race model.

“I think we should just go back to that,” he said.

Race execution at Worlds and the Pre Classic could not have contrasted more. At Budapest, through 200m, Benjamin led Warholm, 21.83–21.86. At Pre, through six hurdles, Benjamin trailed by a half-second, 24.10–24.61. He said he did not mean to fall so far behind so early.

“I was just playing the rundown game from there,” he said.

At Worlds, Benjamin said, he didn’t know why his body would not respond as he thought it would or should.

“A lot of people are kind of disappointed in me, going to these major championships and not really performing as I should,” he said. “So I’m just happy to get this out of the way. I feel like I got over this mental hump there.”

Benjamin, 26, has been racing internationally since ’13, representing Antigua in the under-18 World Youth Championships at Donets’k, Ukraine — where, coincidentally, Warholm was the octathlon gold medalist.

The son of international cricketer Winston Benjamin, history’s No. 2 all-time hurdler has followed a career arc with many familiar highlights. As a high school senior (Mt. Vernon, New York) in ’15, his 33.17 indoor 300 got him to within 0.12 of the HSR owned at the time by future Tokyo ’21 gold medal 4×4 teammate Michael Cherry. He won New Balance Nationals indoors in the 400 and outdoors in the hurdles, clocking 49.97 in the latter.

His breakout to world elite level in ’18 after transferring from UCLA to USC came in stunning fashion on a cool, damp day in Eugene. In that setting he clocked 47.02, then equal-No. 2 all time behind Kevin Young’s 46.89 from ’92 and same as the fastest-ever time from hurdles icon Edwin Moses.

Following Benjamin’s transfer of allegiance to the USA before the ’19 season, he has run on American 4×4 teams winning gold medals at Doha, Tokyo and Budapest. Yet he considers the résumé incomplete.

Running 46.17 for No. 2 all time at Tokyo? Underperformance, he said.

“I was supposed to win that race. I’m supposed to win every race. That’s just my mind-set,” he said. “It was a fantastic time. But the reality is, someone else broke the World Record and ran faster on that day. He was the better man, and he’s always consistently been the better man when it’s time to run.

“I need to get myself together and really perform when it matters.”