On Saturday night, he had come 0.05 seconds shy of the world record in 400m hurdles in the US trials at the Hayward Field, Eugene, Oregon. As he would confess himself, if he had to break the world record in the trials itself, what is there to do in Tokyo? Something must be left for the Olympics too, right?
“It’s like if I would have broken the world record now, what would I have done in Tokyo?” said Rai Benjamin, the son of yesteryears’ cricketer Winston Benjamin, after clocking 46.83 – the world record stands at 46.78 in the name of Kevin Young, set some 28 years ago.
Rai Benjamin with his mother and sister in Oregon, US, on Sunday
It is evident that speed is in Rai’s DNA. His father Winston was a fiery pacer in the 80s and 90s from the Caribbean, a quality even Sanjay Manjrekar should vouch for (he was forced retire by him). But Winston did not insist that Rai should become a cricketer, leave alone a fast bowler.
“I never know why he chose track and not cricket. All I knew I would back him whatever he chose,” said Winston, who played 21 Tests, 85 ODIs for the West Indies. Benjamin, a father of six – three sons and three daughters – left it to his children to choose their careers. Rai’s younger brother became a fast bowler in Antigua but Rai, after initially dabbling in cricket, picked track and field as his career.
“I am proud and happy that he is going to the Olympics. He has had good support from his mother. He had to battle hard to reach here. He is dedicated to the cause. Athletics is his chosen field and we tried to support him to the best of our ability,” Benjamin told TOI from Antigua on Sunday night.
Rai (23) won the 400-meter trials by more than a second. “I looked at it and I was like, ‘Dang, man. Point zero five,'” Benjamin told Team USA official website after his win. “It hurts a little bit to know that it was right there and I couldn’t grab it. But it’s just more fuel for the fire, man. It’ll come when it comes.”
Rai migrated to the US after he did not receive required support from the Antiguan athletics authorities. But Rai does not forget his roots. “In everything I do, I represent my family, their Antiguan culture and heritage. That will always be a part of me. Both, my mom and dad are Antiguans, but when it came to deciding who to represent, they just said to do what’s best for me and that they’ll support me no matter what,” Rai once wrote about himself.
Rai had a harrowing experience during the 9/11 attacks. That was the time he would indulge in back and forth from Antigua and to the US, when he had still not qualified to represent America. The day the Twin Towers were razed by the hijackers, he had taken a morning flight from New York.
“The first four years of my life, I lived in New York with my Mom, and I can still remember the day I left: September 11, 2001. Yes, that day,” he wrote in Spikes website in 2018. “Our flight left New York for Antigua that morning, but given the terrorist attacks our plane got grounded in Puerto Rico. I remember being stuck there for a week and seeing these big black vans and men walking around with huge guns. People were saying the airport was closed indefinitely, and we went back and forth to the airport for days, trying to get back to Antigua.”
Before the US trials, an American TV station showed both father and son in their chosen fields. Winston (56) was shown bowling for the West Indies in an international match against England while Rai was warming up on the track.
Winston now does coaching in Antigua and has done well with the local teams and franchises in the Caribbean. He recalled how Rai ended up taking athletics, one day. “I knew he would try his best. I know he dabbled with the idea of being a cricketer but in his high school, he was a quarterback. His athletics coach saw him and convinced him to take up track and field and he got gravitated towards that,” Benjamin Sr said. “He wanted to be a batsman, he never tried bowling. He has a younger brother who is a fast bowler. He is 6ft 7in and decided, one day, that he will get into track and field.”
Yes, one day, he could become an Olympic and world champion too. Although so much has happened in his 23 years, the Rai Benjamin story may have just begun.
Top Five 400m hurdle timings
1. 46.78: Kevin Young
2. 46.83: Rai Benjamin
3. 46.87: Karsten Warholm
4. 46.98: Abderraahman Sambai
5. 47.02: Ed Moses