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Rai Benjamin, Michael Norman: 2 Breakout Stars To Watch At Track Worlds, Maybe The Olympics

By Peggy Shinn | July 28, 2019, 2:53 a.m. (ET)

Rai Benjamin (L, 400-meter hurdles) and Michael Norman (R, 400-meter) compete at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.


DES MOINES, Iowa — Track and field stars like Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin, with multiple Olympic and world championships medals, are the likely headliners in the lead-up to the 2019 world championships and Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

But there are two less familiar names who could join their ranks soon. Rai Benjamin and Michael Norman could be the next multiple-medal winners for Team USA.

On his 22nd birthday, Benjamin won his first national title at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity. He won the 400-meter hurdles in 47.23 seconds.

It is the 10th-fastest time ever recorded in men’s 400 hurdles, and Benjamin was meters ahead of runner-up TJ Holmes (48.58) and third-place Amere Lattin (48.66).

Although he was not entirely happy with how he ran the race, Benjamin noted that, he “got the gift to go to Doha,” referring to the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar. The top three finishers in each event earn world championships berths.

A few minutes later on Drake University’s blue oval, Norman finished second in the 400-meter, the first time he has been defeated in the event in over two years. With an unspecified injury, he has been unable to practice for the past 14 days. Fred Kerley beat Norman to the line, 43.64 to Norman’s 43.79. But the fact that he could run a sub-44-second time on little training bodes well for his future.

“I’m just happy to be out here to end the meet healthy and to make the team,” said Norman. “Sometimes you have to take an ‘L,’ take two steps back to step forward. So this is good for me to reflect and build upon. These next eight weeks I’ll be pretty focused and dialed in to prepare for the Doha finals.”

Both Benjamin and Norman are (almost) undefeated this year in their events. Benjamin finished second in the first Diamond League meet this season, and Norman took second in Saturday’s national championship 400.

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Benjamin showed the world his talent when he ran 47.02 in the 400 hurdles at the 2018 NCAA championships. Like Norman, he competed for the USC Trojans. The time tied him with Edwin Moses for the third-fastest 400 hurdles of all time.

Then at the Prefontaine Classic on June 30 this year, he ran 47.16. It was the eighth-fastest time ever, and Benjamin was almost two seconds clear of the field.

It’s his first official season as an American athlete. Born in New York to Antiguan parents, he formerly represented Antigua. The IAAF cleared him to compete for Team USA on Oct. 3, 2018.

Norman — the world record holder in the indoor 400 and also an NCAA champion in 2018 for the Trojans — first showed his talent when he was still in high school. At the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, he beat sprinting legend Gatlin in the 200-meter semifinals, but then missed qualifying for the Rio Games (finishing fifth in the final).

This season, Norman holds the world-leading time in the 400 at 43.45. The last time he lost a 400 final was in June 2017 at U.S. outdoor championships. A versatile sprinter, Norman is one of few men to beat Noah Lyles in the 200 this season.

At the 2019 world championships, both Norman and Benjamin could bolster the 4x400 relay team. Although the U.S. men won gold in that relay at the Rio Games, they finished second to Trinidad & Tobago at 2017 worlds.

Norman predicted that he and Benjamin could help “bring USA back on top.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.