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For Rai Benjamin, clearing the next hurdle will take something special

Rai Benjamin

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 01: Rai Benjamin of Team United States looks on during the Men’s 400m Hurdles Semi-Final on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 01, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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Rai Benjamin finds the question hard to answer, but he replied succinctly nonetheless.

“My outlook for this year?” he paused. “Run a lot faster than I did back in August.”

Won’t be easy.

Back in August, Benjamin crushed the men’s 400m hurdles world record by .53 of second at the Tokyo Olympics. But the Norwegian in the lane to his right, Karsten Warholm, obliterated the world record, going .76 faster than the best time in history and breaking the record for the second time in 33 days.

Benjamin became the first person to better the existing world record in an individual Olympic track and field final to win silver, not gold, in 41 years. The next day, the same thing happened to countrywoman Dalilah Muhammad in the women’s 400m hurdles. Muhammad, unlike Benjamin, already had an individual gold medal from 2016.

In his aftermath, through tearful interviews, Benjamin said he may need a while to digest his unique Olympic experience from a unique Olympics. He rewatched the race for the first time two months later.

“I could literally walk anyone through that race, vividly, from my standpoint, and tell them what I was thinking between every single hurdle,” he said. “Just to watch it back from somewhat of a third-person point of view, and mesh that with the first-person point of view that I myself have, I think that was really important.”

By December, he fully processed the 46-second race, plus everything surrounding it in Japan.

“It took me a long time to come away from not only my event, but the fact that we were in Tokyo for so long, and all I saw was my roommates, and that’s it,” said Benjamin, who stayed with his Southern California roommate Michael Norman, plus four more U.S. track and field athletes. “It wasn’t much of an experience there. Being in a bubble for two and a half weeks, it was rough coming home. It was almost like nothing happened. Add that to the whole mental aspect of coming down from the race.”

Last week, Benjamin returned to Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium to contest the 400m hurdles for the first time since the Games. He won, in a lower-level meet lacking the world’s other top hurdlers.

Then he flew to Doha, where he is among the headliners for the first top-level Diamond League meet of the season this Friday (broadcast info here). Five of the top six men from the Olympics are in the field. Warholm is the missing person. He and Benjamin are unlikely to meet before the world championships in July in Eugene, Oregon.

Benjamin has fond memories of Eugene. It’s where, on a rainy Friday in June 2018, he won the NCAA 400m hurdles title as a USC junior in what was, at the time, tied for the second-fastest time in history with Edwin Moses. It was the world’s best time in nearly 36 years. In the four years since, four different men combined to run faster on nine occasions, including Benjamin.

It’s easy to fixate on times in sprinting, especially in Benjamin’s event. That’s not how Benjamin looks at it.

“I can’t really put a solid time on everything [this season] because I didn’t know how fast I was going to run last year,” he said. “Putting a number on it is doing a disservice to myself.”

Beating Warholm’s world record -- 45.94 seconds -- is not the primary goal this summer.

“A gold medal is definitely more important to me,” said Benjamin, who also took silver to Warholm at his previous world championships appearance in 2019. “Winning in Oregon, winning at home, will be somewhat more gratifying than breaking the world record and not winning at home.”

Benjamin said he and Warholm last spoke in August, a cordial conversation before the closing 4x400m relay in Tokyo. Warholm told Benjamin they should both be proud of the 400m hurdles final, and that he wished Norway could field a relay team. Benjamin then went out and anchored the Americans to gold.

Their names were linked again last month. Norwegian media reported that Warholm turned down an appearance fee offer of around $31,000 to compete on May 28 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, where Benjamin will run. Benjamin is a Nike athlete, and almost all prominent Nike athletes, especially American ones, compete at Pre. Warholm is sponsored by Puma.

Warholm reportedly declined because of the nine-time-zone travel from Norway that would interrupt his last important training stretch leading up to worlds in July and the European Championships in August. He needed more time to get into competitive shape.

Benjamin saw the Norwegian report. He respected Warholm’s strategy while noting his different approach in flying to Tokyo and then Doha these past two weeks. Then again, Benjamin has to be ready earlier in the season to qualify for worlds at next month’s USATF Outdoor Championships, whereas Warholm has a bye into the championships.

“He’s his own person. He knows what’s best for him,” Benjamin said. “If he feels as though coming over here to compete right now isn’t ideal for him, then that’s a decision him and his coach, I guess, they stand by.”

Warholm has yet to race this season. Last year, his first race was June 4, and his first 400m hurdles was July 1 (a world record). Warholm is expected to race at another Diamond League meet, Oslo’s Bislett Games, on June 16. That date doesn’t fit Benjamin’s schedule this year because that would mean transatlantic flights the week before the USATF Outdoor Championships.

“If Oslo wasn’t in June, and there was no importance of a major championship in the year, for the right dollar amount, I would get on the plane and go over there,” Benjamin said. “I hear Oslo is nice anyway, so Bislett Games, there’s no problem for me whatsoever.

“That’s initially what we get paid to do and what people look forward to, seeing us race. If I have the opportunity to elevate my event in the sport for the upcoming generation so that they have it a lot better than we did, why not? Because that’s what I feel like is important to the sport and to the fan base.”

Before last summer, Benjamin had in mind another goal: drive the 400m hurdles world record so far down that it would be untouchable. Then focus on another event, probably the 200m, even if only for one year.

That’s still in play. He’s just going to have to run a lot faster now.

“Things definitely have to align, and everything has to go well,” he said. “But I would, of course, run the 400m hurdles again at the Olympics.”

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