Rai Benjamin ran the the 400-meter hurdles at the Drake Stadium track Sunday – just as he had done countless times during his first two years at UCLA.
Only this time, he competed as a Trojan.
As a sophomore last year for the Bruins, Benjamin finished second overall in the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA championships and came within .01 seconds of giving the team its first champion on the track in 17 years.
Benjamin transferred to USC last summer, leaving the UCLA track and field team without their top sprinter and a versatile athlete who took home wins in four different events during the 2017 season.
Since Benjamin’s departure, the team has not seen much success in any sprinting events. The team’s sprinters have won just one event since the beginning of the indoor season in February with a recent victory in the 400-meter dash.
For comparison, both USC’s men’s and women’s sprinters celebrated three victories at their previous meet alone. They added another 10 to their collection Sunday at the annual UCLA-USC dual meet.
Sprints coach Curtis Allen said the focus for the UCLA sprint squad is to rebuild and come back stronger next season.
“We’ve redshirted some guys. We’ve also had more injuries than normal,” Allen said. “It’s definitely a rebuilding year. Next year will be much, much improved.”
While the Bruins will regain some talent when their injured athletes return next season, they will also lose some of their top sprinters from this year.
Seniors Joe Herrera and Jelvon Butler have accounted for eight of UCLA’s top-three finishes in sprinting events this season. Both will be leaving after this season.
“Most of the people that are running right now, most of them are not coming back,” Herrera said. “A lot of them are graduating.”
Having recently returned from an injury that kept him out of the indoor season, Herrera set a new personal best of 46.64 seconds in the 400-meter dash this weekend, taking third overall.
Herrera said that, in a rebuilding season such as this one, athletes tend to focus less on the team and more on their own progress.
“I did pretty well on Sunday, so I was fine with my own performance,” Herrera said. “It’s definitely more of an individual focus, especially for the men.”
According to Avery Anderson, the director of track and field and cross country, injuries have particularly affected the men’s sprinters.
At their annual dual meet against USC, the men fielded just two sprinters to the Trojans’ 10. In both the 110-meter hurdles and 400-meter hurdles, USC ran completely unopposed.
Anderson said this is probably the first time in his career that he has been a part of a team without a single hurdler that can compete.
The disparity between the two squads was made clear by the score at the end of the meet. Bruin men’s and women’s sprinters combined managed just two points, while the Trojans tallied over 100.
Allen said that it is disappointing to lose, especially to USC. However, he still sees plenty of signs of promise for the sprints team moving forward.
“The kids are working hard. They all have set a personal record this year,” Allen said. “We just need to keep working and putting together our race plan. If we execute our race plan, by the time we get to Pac-12s, everyone should run faster.”
As for Benjamin, he finished the 400-meter hurdles in 49.84 seconds. It was more than a second slower than the personal best he set for UCLA at last year’s championships, but still good for fourth in the nation.