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

Rai Benjamin

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.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)

Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze

Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!