Rai Benjamin at the Paris Diamond League (© Getty Images)
by Rai Benjamin
The email arrived on a Monday morning, a notification pinging from my phone during an 8am class – one I had been waiting so long to read.
At first I took a quick glance and locked my phone, but then I couldn’t resist opening it again to read through more carefully. The excitement building, I had to walk out of class to make sure it really was what it said: I was finally cleared to represent the United States of America.
Nationality, identity – they’re strange things, flexible terms that hinge on so many factors like your family history, personal circumstances and what you say when someone asks that difficult question: where are you from?
Living in the United States, you understand early that most people don’t see themselves as any single nationality, but a blend of many.
Me? I grew up mixing my time between Antigua and the US, the son of two Antiguan parents.
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.
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.
Between the ages of four and nine I lived in Antigua with my uncle, then I moved back to New York for two years to again live with Mom.
She worked hard, so hard that it was often super-late when she got home, and it was tough: when I was back in Antigua I’d miss her a lot, but in New York I’d miss the rest of my family and my cousins. It’s why, after two years, I moved back to Antigua to do seventh and eighth grade there, before again going back to New York to finish high school.
I’ve been in the US ever since.
My whole life, I felt a blend of nationalities and for me, that’s only a positive. It gave me a different perspective on life, being immersed in two different cultures. 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.
The decision about who to represent has always been tricky. In 2013 I competed for Antigua and Barbuda at my first global championships, reaching the 400m hurdles semi-final at the World Youth Championships in Ukraine.
I was 16 at the time, still attending high school at Mount Vernon, New York, and a lot of my track friends were at the same event with the US team. But I couldn’t hang out with them – they would always be on a different bus with a different schedule, and I ended up by myself at most meets.
At that age, it can be hard – a high school kid in a foreign country where I don’t know anyone. I wasn’t immersing myself in the culture but my friends were and in truth, I just wanted to be doing it with them.
The following year, I planned to represent the US at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China, and I thought I would be able to after winning the US Trials in Florida, but because I had run for Antigua the year before they told me I had to sit out a year before I could compete for them.
Both my Mom and Dad are Antiguan, 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.
I started the transfer of allegiance process almost three years ago, and when it came through in early October it felt like reaching a finish line.
Of course in reality it’s just the start line, the beginning of a new chapter as I set out on a professional career. Though I turned pro in the summer, I’ll still be at the University of Southern California this year, where I’ve two semesters left to finish my studies in political science.
So far it’s been a dream year. I won the NCAA 400m hurdles title in 47.02, and when I hit the line the time didn’t register, mainly because all I thought about was running the 4x400. Looking back now, I’m proud of myself but it’s in the past – I’ve got to do it again and do it better.
It didn’t feel like the perfect race. I chopped the entire back stretch trying to stay at 13 strides between hurdles, which I wasn’t comfortable doing.
In 2019 the key will be not to do too much too early, given the season goes until October.
This year only one guy ran faster than me, Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba, and I know how tough he’ll be to beat with the World Championships in Doha on his home turf. He’s going to have that morale boost but at the same time, it’s track and field – you have to come out and compete and see what happens.
I’m going there to win. That’s the goal.
But I need to improve, something I’ll be planning to do this year with my incredible coaches at USC: Quincy Watts, Joanna Hayes and Caryl Smith Gilbert.
To have two Olympic gold medallists guiding your career, it’s a dream. They pay so much attention to detail and always want you to do the right thing, and next year I’ll be aiming for 12 strides between hurdles, which I believe Edwin Moses was the last to do at the top level of my event.
Next year I’m also looking forward to getting out on the Diamond League circuit. This summer I competed in Paris and Lausanne and it was so interesting to experience two culturally diverse cities, places that were so close but also so different.
It was a reminder how much more is out there beyond my corner of the world, beyond the two countries that made me who I am: Antigua and the United States.
At the Worlds next year, I hope to be there in the USA strip, but I plan to represent more than that, too. In everything I do, I represent my family, their Antiguan culture and heritage. That will always be a part of me.