Rai Benjamin is among a new generation of one-lap hurdlers constantly threatening to set a new golden standard for the event.
Less than three years since completing his transfer of allegiance from Antigua and Barbuda, Benjamin will be looking to represent the United States at his maiden Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020.
Benjamin, the joint third-fastest man in the 400m hurdles, will not only be looking to fly the US flag at the Games, but he has a realistic chance to step onto the podium. First, he will have to navigate the US track and field trials this weekend for a place in the team to Tokyo.
1 – Edging towards the world record
Benjamin announced himself to the world in 2018 when he won the NCAA title, clocking 47.02 seconds to match US track legend Edwin Moses as the second-fastest 400m hurdler of all time. He has since been on a mission to break Kevin Young’s world record of 46.78 but has fallen painstakingly short.
Norway's two-time world champion Karsten Warholm and Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba have also joined the hunt on the record Young set to win the Barcelona 1992 title.
Benjamin and Warholm’s rivalry has reignited the event, producing fireworks whenever they line up against each other. The two joined the sub-47 second club for the first time at the 2019 Diamond League final in Zurich. Warholm staved off the challenge beating Benjamin with a time of 46.92 to launch himself into second place on the all-time list.
Benjamin’s time of 46.98 tied him third with Samba. Bolstered by his meteoric rise in the all-time rankings, Benjamin added the world silver medal a month later, finishing second behind Warholm.
Benjamin did not race over the barriers in 2020 but demonstrated his speed posting an impressive 100m PB of 10.03. He started this year with a bang clocking a 400m hurdles world lead of 47.13.
2 – We don’t like cricket, we love
Benjamin was born in Mount Vernon, New York, to two Antiguan parents and represented the Caribbean nation at the 2013 World Youth Championships.
The 23-year-old Benjamin wanted to be a cricketer like his father Winston, who was a fast bowler for the Windies. Winston played in 21 Tests and 85 One Day Internationals. He played a pivotal role in keeping the West Indies’ eight-year unbeaten series run intact thanks to a 40 not out stand to help the side to a two-wicket win over Pakistan.
While Benjamin could easily have followed in his father’s footsteps, he is on the cusp of reaching the pinnacle of his sport.
Benjamin played some soccer in Antigua but took up American football, which ultimately led to a career in track and field.
“To help my speed for (American) football, I did a little track in my high school freshman year, and it was after I split a 4x400m relay leg in 50 seconds, I first realised I had some potential in track, and If I took the sport seriously, I could get a college scholarship,” he told World Athletics.
3 – Coach Quincy
Benjamin has been making great strides in his career under the tutelage of Quincy Watts, who has a connection with current world 400m hurdles record holder Young.
Watts won the 400m gold medal at the Barcelona 1992 Games, where Young raced to the global mark that has stood since then.
“As far as advice, he (Young) didn’t really give me any because I wouldn’t give anyone advice on how to break my own record,” Benjamin said.
“So, he just told me to go out there and run. He trained with coach [Quincy] Watts, who is now my coach. They were roommates in Barcelona when he broke the world record. So I think he kind of saw a little bit of me in him.”
4 – Political science pro
Benjamin reached four significant milestones in 2018/19 in which he completed his transfer of allegiance, turned professional, won a world silver medal and finished his degree.
Although Benjamin turned professional, he opted to continue his studies at the University of Southern California and complete his degree in Political Science.
“I majored in Political Science. And as far people saying, 'Ah man, you didn’t have to finish [your degree],' for me, I did. The goal was always to finish school,” Benjamin told Glass Magazine.
“Granted, I didn’t necessarily have to – I was already getting paid to do exactly what I love – but for me, it’s about being more than just a track athlete.
“It was about being educated and having a college diploma. My mum really pushed for me to graduate. It wasn’t easy… at some points in time, I was even saying to myself, ‘Man… I really don’t have to be here now, but just knowing that I wanted to be a college graduate and I wanted a degree, that kept me going.”
The sacrifices paid off when Benjamin both stepped onto the podium at the world championships and completed his degree in 2019.
5 – Headband brothers
Benjamin and training partner Michael Norman can be considered siblings, perhaps not by blood, but by the bond they share both on and off the track.
Norman, who is one of the world’s best 400m athletes, and Benjamin have been rooming together since college, where they have also brought the competitive edge out of each other.
“Mike is my training partner, and he’s my brother. [When we compete,] what goes through my head is, let me see how far I can push myself, while pushing him, to see how fast we can actually run – when he PRs, I PR (personal record),” he told Glass Magazine.
“There is that competition factor there too, but at the end of the day: as long as he wins, or I win, there are never any hard feelings.”
The duo is often seen on the track with matching headbands… brothers in headbands if you like.