Rai Benjamin in the 400m hurdles at the NCAA Championships (© Kirby Lee)
Twenty-year-old Rai Benjamin currently sits joint number three on the all-time 400m hurdles lists following his sensational 47.02 clocking when winning the NCAA title in June. The US-born Benjamin, a dual national who has previously represented Antigua in international competition, talks about his athletics journey so far and just why he enjoys the intricacies of his event.
“I am from a sporting family. My father, Winston, used to play cricket for the West Indies (he earned 21 Test caps) and my five uncles all played basketball. I started out as a soccer player before I moved back to the United States after living in Antigua for a spell and I took up the other football – American football.
“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.
“My hurdles journey also started out in my freshman year at high school. My coach wanted to earn some points at a county meet and I ended up running 56 seconds and winning. He told me after the race, if I worked hard I had a really big future in the hurdles.
“I took some time for me to love 400m hurdles. I wanted to be a 100m, 200m and 400m sprinter – but over time I realised the hurdles was something I could be good, so I stuck with it and learned to appreciate the event.
“In my senior year at high school I ran 49 seconds for the 400m hurdles and that is when I realised I could pursue a professional career in the sport.
“It took me some time to learn about the history of the event. I spent my first two years at college at UCLA but during my first year there I didn’t even realise the school record-holder Kevin Young was also the world record holder for 400m hurdles.
“It was only a little later I became aware of some of the top 400m hurdlers like Felix Sanchez, Javier Culson, Kerron Clement and Bershawn “Batman” Jackson.
“I enjoy the technical aspects to 400m hurdling and the fact you constantly need to adapt, which keeps me intrigued about the event. You are constantly adjusting technically, putting together different race patterns and different races.
“I also love that clean feeling when you manage to really nail a 400m hurdles. It feels super relaxed, a very fluid motion. This is how I felt when I ran my PB of 47.02 – I was really in the groove, particularly in that second half of the race.
“I also feel very lucky that my talent for 400m hurdles has allowed me to travel the world. It is very important to see what life is like beyond your own circle and to understand how other people think and interact – it gives you a different perspective.
“I would never have expected even just four months ago to have experienced Paris and Switzerland. I feel very grateful.
“It is sometimes hard to pinpoint why I do the event, especially during some tough days in practise. In my opinion, the 400m hurdles is one of the harder events to train for but that sense of accomplishment you feel knowing you have worked so hard for something is worth it.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF