Though Rai Benjamin has built a resume like few hurdlers in athletics history, he was fixated on what he lacked earlier this season.
The 26-year-old American’s young career has been marked by being oh-so-close: The former UCLA and USC All-American, who trains in Los Angeles, has the second-fastest time in history in the 400-meter hurdles and silver medals at the 2019 and 2022 World Championships and the Tokyo 2021 Olympics.
On Wednesday night at the IAAF World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, Benjamin had the gold he had long sought just a meter away as he completed the eighth of ten hurdles and about 110 more in the 400-meter hurdles final meters were left. Only the Norwegian Karsten Warholm, the world record holder in the next lane, was ahead. But on the final stretch, Benjamin was unable to close the gap or overtake Warholm, who catapulted himself to the world title again in 46.89 seconds.
Kyron McMaster surprisingly took silver for the British Virgin Islands in 47.34 seconds and Benjamin was third in 47.56 seconds.
With Warholm, Benjamin and reigning World Champion Alison dos Santos of Brazil, the trio pushing the boundaries of the event to unprecedented times, Wednesday’s final was eagerly awaited, albeit with caveats: dos Santos bounced back still from surgery on his knee in February, and Benjamin had lost eight weeks of racing in May and June while recovering from a quadriceps injury.
Halfway through, Benjamin was first at 21.83 in the 200 meters, with Warholm having 21.86. At 300 meters, Warholm had a lead of 0.09 seconds. He immediately increased the gap in the final by running the final 100 seconds in 13.28 seconds, 0.58 faster than Benjamin.
Benjamin’s career was not without golden moments. An All-American for UCLA in 2016 and 2017, he joined USC and immediately broke the collegiate record before turning pro, where success followed and gold medals in the 4×400 relay at the 2019 World Championships and Olympics Won in Tokyo 2021.
But he hadn’t managed to win an individual victory at a world championship. Benjamin’s rise to fame also coincided with that of Warholm and dos Santos. Of the ten fastest times in 400m hurdles history, nine have been set in the past two years by either Warholm, the world record holder, Benjamin (No. 2 all-time) or dos Santos (No. 3).
The gap between silver and gold in previous championships is due to inexperience, Benjamin said in July after winning the US championship, but he was certain “I’m the fastest in the field.”
“I’ve got silver in the last three championships, that’s no secret, it’s on everyone’s lips, but at the same time I’m the most consistent person in the field when you look at it that way,” said Benjamin on July 9 in Eugene. Erz. “Last year I mean [Warholm and Benjamin] were both injured, I won a medal. It’s just one of those things where, at the end of the day, I have to be given my respect at a certain point. I don’t really find fulfillment in what other people say, but when the peanut gallery is talking about you and they haven’t actually been there, it’s just, dude, sit down. You weren’t here, you’re not running the times we’re running at all.
“It’s hard to maintain this level of competitiveness and speed and it has taken its toll on everyone.”
That tribute has been paramount for Benjamin this season. His training partner who returned to USC, Michael Norman, changed coaches and training squads in the spring, which he says left him psychologically struggling for several weeks to find motivation. He made it clear he didn’t blame Norman for his move, but “I got to a point where I was like, man, I don’t even know if I want to run the rest of the season, it’s been so bad,” he said.
Then, after a race on May 5, Benjamin suffered a left quadriceps injury and did not race for eight weeks. His recovery required a doctor’s visit in Germany and a few weeks without being able to train for three or four days at a time.
“It was really tough,” Benjamin said. “Really, really hard.”
The result from Wednesday is also valid as such. Benjamin is targeting a spot at next year’s Paris Olympics and is still on the hunt for his elusive gold medal.