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Rai Benjamin the Pac-12’s ace on Tuesday’s track in Tokyo

Aug 3, 2021
Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images

TOKYO – The Pac at the track on Tuesday morning featured a Jack, King, Queen and Ace. In that order. And the Ace blew open the game.

First came the Jack, the new kid:  

Cole Hocker, who turned 20 in June, was not only competing in his first Olympic race at 9:05 a.m. Tokyo time, he was competing in the first international race of his career. The OREGON sophomore had no intention of being eliminated in the first round, especially after beating the 2016 Olympic champion at the U.S. Trials in a personal best 3:35.28.

So the Indiana native ran the fifth-fastest qualifying time overall (3:36.16) in his Olympic opener to advance automatically to Thursday’s semifinals.

“I’m really happy with the way I was able to handle myself in the most competitive race I’ve ever been in,” Hocker said. “Of course, that’s not a race where people are going all-out, but a lot of times in the last 100 meters, people have to kick into that all-out gear to get top six. I didn’t feel I had to do that. That gives me a lot of confidence.

Next came the King, the defending Olympic champion:

The 1,500m Rio gold medalist, Matthew Centrowitz became the second Duck to advance in the 1,500m heats, in 3:41.12.

In the last 200 or 300 meters, Centrowitz said, “I kinda felt flat, I guess from the travel, first-round kinks, but I put myself in a good position to be able to qualify safely. I heard two people [fall] at different times during that heat. It definitely made me feel better about going toward the front and getting out of that riffraff. Now I’ll just rest up and get ready for the next round.”

He was followed by the Queen, the most decorated American woman in track and field:

Less than an hour later, USC graduate Allyson Felix, ran the fourth-fastest qualifying time in the women’s 400-meter heats (50.84 seconds) to advance to Wednesday’s semifinals in her only individual event in her fifth and final Games.

“It’s nice to get going,” she said afterwards. “It feels like I’ve been waiting forever. I’m ready to bump it up for the semi.’

Her 2-year-old daughter, Camryn, stayed in the States, but Felix said, “My goals are always the same. I’m still going out there to give everything I have.”

And finally, the Ace:

USC’s Rai Benjamin entered the men’s 400m hurdles final as one of the only four men in history to run under 47 seconds. Three of them were in the race - and it was a race for the ages.

All eyes were on Karsten Warholm, in Lane 6, the Norwegian phenom who, 32 days earlier, had broken the oldest world record in men’s track by 8-hundredths of a second, lowering Kevin Young’s mark to 46.70 in Oslo. But Benjamin, in Lane 5, was on Warholm’s shoulder in the last straightaway and the two men traded surges in the last 15 meters. The Norwegian hung on and crossed the line wide-eyed in shock, as he obliterated his own world record by .76 seconds, winning with a nearly unthinkable 45.94.

Benjamin also ran under the old world record, taking silver in 46.17 seconds. Even in rarified air, however, the Trojan was crushed.

“It's a lot to process,” Benjamin said in the media zone an hour later. “You know, cried a little bit. I saw the 45.9 and I was like, ‘What the hell?’ And then I saw 46.1 and was like, ‘No way.’ I thought it was gonna take 46-low to win.”

Nonetheless, Benjamin knew the race would make highlight reels forever, calling it “the best race in Olympic history. I don't even think Usain Bolt's 9.5 [world record in Berlin] tops that.

“But 45.9, man, 46.1 and I lost. I made some mistakes on that back stretch and it cost me.

“I chopped [hurdle] four,” he explained. “As a result, I didn't run how I was supposed to run to five. I ran into the turn, and was like alright, I'm gonna go get this guy. I'm coming, and he's coming and you see it coming and you see the distance starting to close. And just I frickin’ ran out of space. It's the second time has happened to me. It happened at the Zurich final as well. I hope it doesn't happen the third time.

“Two, three years ago, I was like: Someone's gonna run 45. It's only a matter of time. And Karsten did it today. That kid's amazing, man.

“People say it's the track. It's the shoes…but no one in history is going to go out there and do what we just did just now – ever. I don't care who you are. You can be Kevin Young [who held the world record for 29 years], Edwin Moses – all respect to those guys, but they cannot run what we just ran just now.”

Benjamin tried to describe how it looked and felt.

‘It's so tunnel vision,” he said. “The only thing I saw for the first three hurdles was my hurdles. I knew when I got to four, I was like, [mild expletive] he's gonna have a step [advantage] on me. But you don't hear anything. A million things go through your mind at the same time, like: Get off this hurdle; look at the next hurdle; what's gonna happen; what foot's coming up? Everything is white noise. I didn't see anyone until hurdle seven. And at that point, it was like: I'm behind. I got to go get this guy. And I ran out of space.”

“Everyone who was supposed to be in that race was in that race,” he said, and rattled off every man in the field: “Warholm, [Qatar’s Abderrahman] Samba, [the Brazilian bronze medalist Alison] dos Santos, [British Virgin Islands’ Kyron] McMaster, [Turkey’s Yasmani] Copello, [Estonia’s Rasmus] Magi, the Italian kid PR'ed. What can you say?

“I'm getting goosebumps talking about it.

“I think it's only going to get better next year and the year after.”