Switch of nations finalized, Benjamin eager for nationals

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Rai Benjamin: Antiguan cricket player. Just like dad. Sure, the thought perhaps held a certain charm early on.

But Rai Benjamin: American sprinter. He’s carving his own path. Just like his dad encouraged. Now that turned out to be more his speed.

Benjamin swapped sports as a kid, nations later on — he used to run for Antigua — and is taking the track at the U.S. championships in the 400-meter hurdles. He’s hoping to earn a spot and wear the red, white and blue at worlds this fall in Doha.

“This means a lot,” said Benjamin, who had the top time (49.61 seconds) in the first round of qualifying Thursday night at Drake Stadium.

His father, Winston, is well known in the Caribbean as a former cricket player for West Indies.

Rai, who turns 22 on Saturday, is steadily making his own identity and building toward the Tokyo Olympics that are now just a year away. He’s run the 400 hurdles in under 47.50 seconds several times in his burgeoning career.

Then again, his dad had a feeling he was capable of something like this. He knew when Rai was just a youngster and teared up after losing a close race.

“I saw that passion and I said to myself, ‘This kid is going to go places,'” Winston said in a phone interview from Antigua. “His passion really got my attention.”

For that sort of passion, Rai — whose switch of nations became official in October — credited his father. Winston was a bowler (almost like a pitcher in baseball) for West Indies starting in the mid-1980s. He still coaches the sport.

“We’d go places and everyone is calling his name,” said Rai, who tried cricket along with soccer and football before catching the bug for track. “It’s a nice feeling to know that my dad has been there and he tells me certain things, what to expect and what not to do. I definitely do appreciate the advice I get from him.”

Growing up, Rai split his time between the U.S. (he was born in New York) and Antigua. He went to high school in Mount Vernon, New York, where he became a state champion in the 400 hurdles. His mom, Jeanette Mason, played an integral role in his development, keeping him focused and grounded.

“She’s been amazing — a rock star,” Rai said. “She kept me on a really, really straight path.”

At first, Rai decided to represent Antigua on the international stage. His mom and dad both have strong roots there.

He competed for Antigua and Barbuda at the 2013 world youth championships in Ukraine and reached the semifinals. He also ran for the country at the 2015 world relays. His friends, though, were making the U.S. teams. It was hard to hang out with them at big meets since they were on different schedules.

Rai described the switch of countries in an essay titled “Identity” on Spikes, a website in conjunction with the International Association of Athletics Federations.

“I have one personality, but it’s a mixture of both. I enjoy certain Antiguan stuff and certain American stuff — it’s always been an even balance,” Rai wrote. “The decision about who to represent has always been tricky.”

The switch took around three years due to the tightening of transfer rules by the IAAF. He received word that his request went through in early October.

Red, white and blue will be his new colors.

His family understood his decision.

“We never decided anything for him,” Winston said. “We told him you decide what’s best for you.”

Rai began his collegiate career at UCLA and then transferred to USC , where he won the 400 hurdles NCAA title in 2018 before turning pro. He still happens to be roommates with fellow USC runner Michael Norman, who has the fastest 400-meter time this season.

They take turns cooking at their place in Los Angeles. They share cleaning duties, too (although, Rai said Norman is slightly neater than him). But they sometimes need to be kept apart during practices since it turns competitive.

“I don’t cut him any slack,” Rai cracked . “I look at his face every day and it’s like, ‘You’re not going to beat me every day.’ We bring the best out in each other.”

As for cricket, Rai appreciates the nuances of the game. He’s watched videos of his dad’s playing days on YouTube . Winston’s bowling was on point, his speed top notch. Rai contends his dad would’ve made an excellent 200-meter runner.

Funny, his dad said the same time about his son.

“I think he’s a better 200-meter runner than a hurdler or any other distance,” Winston said. “I believe his best is yet to come. I’m a firm believer in that.”

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