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Under Attack: Kevin Young Waiting For 28-Year-Old World Record In 400-Meter Hurdles To Fall

By Karen Rosen | Sept. 08, 2020, 10:34 a.m. (ET)

Kevin Young jumps over a hurdle during the US Olympic Trials in New Orleans, Louisana. 

 

Kevin Young knows his world record in the men’s 400-meter hurdles may not last much longer.

And he’s OK with that. He never imagined it would stand for 28 years. “Once my record gets broken, I’m going to say, ‘What the heck have you guys been doing for almost three decades?’” Young said.

Young’s mark of 46.78 seconds, set when he won the gold medal at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992, could go as early as today when Norway’s Karsten Warholm races at the Golden Spike meet in Ostrava, Czech Republic. (Warholm clocked 47.62 at Tuesday's meet, well off the record.) 

If the record survives 2020, it could fall next year, when Rai Benjamin of Team USA returns to action after shutting down an abbreviated season with no hurdles races due to the pandemic.

Young said he won’t send a bottle of champagne to the new world record holder. After all, no one sent one to him. “I’ll send a T-shirt – ‘Welcome to the Club,’” he said.

Warholm has relentlessly closed in on Young’s mark during his first two meets of this curtailed season. With Young in the stands, Warholm ran 47.10 in Monaco on Aug. 14.

Then Young watched on television from Switzerland as the Norwegian clocked 46.87 on Aug. 23 in Stockholm, missing by only .09. Warholm hit the 10th and last hurdle, just as Young did in Barcelona.

“I’m over my world record being broken,” Young told teamusa.org from Europe, where he is pursuing a masters degree in sports integrity and ethics. “I want to see who’s the first person to go under 46 seconds. I’m seeing Rai going 45.9 - that’s what I’m looking at.”

Warholm and Benjamin expect to be challenged next year by Abderrahman Samba of Qatar, making the 400 hurdles one of the most eagerly anticipated rivalries at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 (which will keep the name despite being held in 2021).

Young & Hungry
None of them were born when Young set the record. Samba, who has not raced at all this year, just turned 25, Warholm is 24 and Benjamin celebrated his 23rd birthday in July.

“Watching Samba, Rai and Karsten, I am literally at the edge of my seat,” Young said. “Just watching the potential which they have, I’m shaking my head, going, ‘Wow, what a great time it is to be an intermediate hurdler.’

“The way these hurdles have been pushing the envelope over the past few years is incredible.”

Warholm is a two-time world champion, while Benjamin was second at the 2019 worlds in Doha and Samba came in third.

“You get talent like that every once in a blue moon,” Benjamin told teamusa.org, “and it’s just crazy that we all happen to be good at the same time right now. I feel as though once you run a certain time, you get more and more ambitious and more confident.”

He added “I always tell everyone, ‘I’m young. I’m going to be here for 20 years, so just be prepared.”

While Young likes to say that he is currently the FOAT – Fastest of All Time, “Edwin will always be the GOAT,” he said, referring to the great Edwin Moses, who won Olympic gold in 1976 and 1984 and the bronze in 1988.

Moses broke the world record four times – first in winning in Montreal with a time of 47.64, then lowering the mark to 47.45 in 1977, 47.13 in 1980 and 47.02 in 1983.

That mark held until Young shattered it, becoming the first man under 47 seconds - and with room to spare. Young compares his achievement to Bob Beamon’s world-record long jump in 1968. “It was a shock and awe to some,” he said.

The Moses Factor
Young was fourth at the 1988 Olympics, and began seriously thinking about the world record the next year after Moses had retired. “When I would think of the world record, all I would see was Edwin Moses’ face and it was just alarming,” he said. “It was basically haunting.

“Everybody wants to break a record; everybody had 47.02 in their head at the time. So I said, ‘Let me get rid of that image of Edwin Moses and put my own image in there.’”

In the next 26 years, it was Young’s image in everyone’s mind. No one came close – not even Young - except fellow American Bryan Bronson, who posted an astonishing time of 47.03 in 1998 and then dropped out of sight.

In the meantime, Americans continued their dominance of an event in which Team USA has won 19 of the 26 Olympic gold medals. Derrick Adkins won gold in 1996, Angelo Taylor was the champion in 2000 and 2008 and Kerron Clement prevailed in 2016.

But the record remained out of reach. It is the oldest men’s record on the track (four men’s field event records are older).

“I figured Angelo was going to do it, or Kerron was going to do it years ago,” said Young, who will be 54 on Sept. 16.

But except for Bronson, no one even flirted with breaking 47 seconds until another 20 years went by. Suddenly, Young’s record was on the endangered list.

Samba went 46.98 in 2018, and then in the Diamond League final in Zurich last year – with Young in the audience - Warholm clocked 46.92 and Benjamin was second at 46.98.

They went on to worlds in October, where Benjamin was hampered by a bone bruise. Warholm won with a time of 47.42, followed by Benjamin (47.66) and Samba (48.03).

“I literally had to rest for three weeks,” Benjamin said. “There’s not much you can do when you can’t really walk at all.”

Coronavirus Concerns
This year it appears the only thing that could stop Benjamin was the pandemic. “The plan was for (the record) to go down this year,” said Benjamin, who will still vie for Young’s American record if Warholm beats him to the world record. “We all see what happened. I’m not even stressed about it right. I just have to regroup and re-plan for next year.”

He called the decision to postpone the Tokyo Games “definitely a gut punch,” followed by the double whammy of American training facilities closing down.

“I haven’t seen a hurdle since February,” said Benjamin, who is coached by Quincy Watts, the 1992 gold medalist in the 400 meters and Barcelona teammate of Young’s, and Joanna Hayes, the 2004 gold medalist in the 100 hurdles. “It didn’t make sense to go out on the international stage and hurdle just to say I hurdled.”

Benjamin, who is based in Los Angeles and attended both UCLA and the University of Southern California, has raced only twice - both times in Fort Worth, Texas. First, he ran an impressive 10.03 seconds in the 100 meters on July 20 (playing second fiddle to roommate Michael Norman, a 400-meter specialist who ran a blistering 9.86).

“Might just switch events,” Benjamin joked on Twitter. He already had a 19.99 200-meter time from 2018 under his belt.

Benjamin then clocked 35.26 in the rarely run 300 meters three days later and called it a season.

He declined invitations to compete in Monaco and Budapest.

“I didn’t feel comfortable being overseas, especially right now,” said Benjamin, who was uncomfortable flying home to New York. “We just don’t know the full effects of this virus. What I do know is it affects the lungs a lot, and I need my lungs. I just didn’t want to take the chance.”

So Benjamin kept up with Warholm – who said he has been very careful with his own Covid-19 precautions - purely by watching his results. Benjamin said he wasn’t surprised to see Warholm post his 47.10 in Monaco.

“He’s been training and he’s had facilities and the necessary tools,” he said. “He doesn’t have the same challenges that we have here, where we’re just trying to make things work out of literally nothing… which is hard. We’ve been sneaking on tracks. It’s just a bunch of crazy stuff.

“That’s the reason I shut down my season so early.”

No Substitute For Technical Work
In an event this competitive, Benjamin said, it’s important to constantly work on stride pattern and hurdle technique. He is working on becoming more ambidextrous, especially since he has been tempted to go from 13 strides to 12 in big races and doesn’t want to stutter step or chop his steps.

“If you’re not working on the small details of the race, it becomes a very big thing in the race,” Benjamin said. “If you’re not on rhythm, it becomes a lot more challenging. Now you’re thinking more and maybe the wrong leg comes up when it’s not supposed to and you just don’t have a feel for the race yet.”

Young is a student of the event and has broken down the differences between himself and the current generation.

In a 400-meter hurdles race, it is 45 meters to the first hurdle, 35 meters between hurdles and 40 meters from the last hurdle to the finish line. Hurdles are 3 feet high, which was perfect for Young, who has a 37-inch inseam.

“What’s happening in the case of Rai and the other hurdlers is simple mathematics,” he said.

“They overexert themselves the first 200 meters of the race. I ran 20.89 seconds for the first five hurdles on my world record pace. These guys are going out 20.5 and 20.4, almost a half second faster, yet they still haven’t been able yet on the back end to match that.

“They outrun me all the way until practically the 10th hurdle. The only thing that is my saving grace is my 13 steps.”

Young went mostly 13 steps on his record run – even dipping to 12 for the fourth and fifth hurdles. In Zurich, Warholm stepped down from 13 strides to 15 for the last two hurdles and Benjamin went from 13 to 14 for the last one, which Young said cost them the world record.

According to the stats for the Stockholm race, Warholm was out faster than Young’s record pace the first 300 meters and both Young and Warholm were timed at 41.65 at the 10th hurdle touchdown

It’s great that everyone is looking at this world record and chasing this world record. I want to do something bigger than that world record.

Rai Benjamin

Breaking Down The Hurdlers
“Karsten is very consistent in how he takes on the race,” Young said. He gets out fast and runs hard all the way through. I’m just in total awe when I watch him run. Danny Harris (1984 Olympic silver medalist) was one of the most aggressive hurdlers in the way he pushed the tempo. Karsten pushes it and keeps going.

“Samba, he’s such an ambidextrous hurdler with that left or right leg, and he moves very well between hurdles.”

“And Rai is just fast. He runs easy. When I’m watching him, it’s one of those situations where I don’t know what to expect when he runs. He’s such a talented athlete.”

While it would seem that having all three hurdlers in the same race would guarantee a record run, that’s not necessarily the case.

Moses didn’t think they would set the world record in Doha – and he was right.

“These guys are so nervous, they’re going to be focusing on each other,” he told teamusa.org. “When you run a world record, it has to be open and free.”

Moses said each time he lowered his own world record, it was “like an a capella performance. It didn’t happen because of competition. If I ran 20 events, I had two or three shots.”

Moses said he would never know when the conditions would be right.

In 1980, he set the world record in Milan, Italy, after partying the night before at a club in Oslo, the site of the previous meet. “I got to Milan at 5 o’clock and the event was at 10:30 at night,” Moses said. “I smashed it.”

Young said trying too hard can also be a detriment. At the 1993 world championships, he was dead set on lowering his own world record.

“You can see the look on my face over the last hurdle,” Young said. “I did everything to get to the finish line in 46, and ended up running 47.18.”

Then he was injured, moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta and said growing pains “created a sort of wall that did not allow me to free my mind, like Edwin was saying, to push my own limits.”

Rivalry vs. Running Alone
While Benjamin said that it wasn’t necessary to have “all three heavy hitters” in the race for a record to fall, “It makes for a much better atmosphere when we’re all in the race, because now you have someone to push you.”

And he said there is no denying that their rivalry adds electricity to the atmosphere.

“It makes it more interesting and it just provides something for everyone to look forward to, and I like that,” Benjamin said. “I like the attention it brings to the event, because everyone’s used to paying attention to the 100 and that being the only event that is really exciting. Now we have the 400 hurdles - three guys who relatively run the same time going at it.”

This year, though, it’s all about Warholm. He has a nine-meet winning streak over two seasons and has had little competition in 2020 as many athletes, like Benjamin, have decided not to compete or have had difficulty traveling.

Starting way out in Lane 8 in Stockholm, Warholm was definitely running his own race, way ahead of the rest of the field. He will again be in Lane 8 in Ostrava and prefers to be on the outside.

“He’s amazing to race by himself like that,” Young said.

Does Benjamin think Warholm will break the record in Ostrava?

“Who knows?” Benjamin said by text, adding the “shrug” emoji.

He said he’s not focusing on what Warholm does.

“I want to focus on myself and do what I can do in order to be great,” he said. “It’s great that everyone is looking at this world record and chasing this world record. I want to do something bigger than that world record.

“The world record is just one step. I just want to take this thing as low as possible as I can in this event.”

When the record does inevitably fall, Young will be ready. He’s content with his legacy – a kid from Watts who walked on at UCLA and retired as a world record holder.

And, Young said, “If it gets broken, I’ve still got the Olympic record.”

At least until next year.

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head shot

Rai Benjamin