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

Rai Benjamin
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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 lost 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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Mikaela Shiffrin heads to world championships with medal records in sight

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Before Mikaela Shiffrin can hold the World Cup wins record, she can become the most decorated Alpine skier in modern world championships history.

Shiffrin takes a respite from World Cup pursuits for the biennial world championships in France. She is expected to race at least four times, beginning with Monday’s combined.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup victories in 23 starts this season, her best since her record 17-win 2018-19 campaign, but world championships do not count toward the World Cup.

Shiffrin remains one career victory behind Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s record 86 World Cup wins until at least her next World Cup start in March.

Shiffrin has been more successful at worlds than at the Olympics and even on the World Cup. She has 11 medals in 13 world championships races dating to her 2013 debut, including making the podium in each of her last 10 events.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

She enters worlds one shy of the modern, post-World War II individual records for total medals (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt won 12) and gold medals (Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson won seven).

Worlds take place exactly one year after Shiffrin missed the medals in all of her Olympic races, but that’s not motivating her.

“If I learned anything last year, it’s that these big events, they can go amazing, and they can go terrible, and you’re going to survive no matter what,” she said after her most recent World Cup last Sunday. “So I kind of don’t care.”

Shiffrin ranks No. 1 in the world this season in the giant slalom (Feb. 16 at worlds) and slalom (Feb. 18).

This year’s combined is one run of super-G coupled with one run of slalom (rather than one downhill and one slalom), which also plays to her strengths. She won that event, with that format, at the last worlds in 2021. The combined isn’t contested on the World Cup, so it’s harder to project favorites.

Shiffrin is also a medal contender in the super-G (Feb. 8), despite starting just two of five World Cup super-Gs this season (winning one of them).

She is not planning to race the downhill (Feb. 11), which she often skips on the World Cup and has never contested at a worlds. Nor is she expected for the individual parallel (Feb. 15), a discipline she hasn’t raced in three years in part due to the strain it puts on her back with the format being several runs for the medalists.

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Lucas Braathen, world’s top male slalom skier, in doubt for world championships

Lucas Braathen
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Norway’s Lucas Braathen, the world’s top male slalom skier this season, is doubtful to compete in the world championships slalom on Feb. 19 after appendix surgery on Tuesday.

“It’s been a tough couple of days fighting after surprisingly finding out about quite an intense infection on my appendix,” Braathen, a 22-year-old soccer convert with a Brazilian mom, posted on social media. “I’ve been through surgery and I’m blessed that it went successfully.”

The Norway Alpine skiing team doctor said Braathen’s recovery will take a few weeks, but there is a small possibility he can make it back for the world championships slalom, which is on the final day of the two-week competition.

Braathen has two slalom wins and one giant slalom win this World Cup season. He will miss Saturday’s slalom in Chamonix, France, the last race before worlds. Countryman Henrik Kristoffersen and Swiss Daniel Yule can overtake him atop the World Cup slalom standings in Chamonix.

Braathen entered last year’s Olympics as the World Cup slalom leader and skied out in the first run at the Games.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

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