MOUNT VERNON – Rai Benjamin walked out the front door of Mount Vernon High School, past the poster of President Obama that reads, “Believe, Achieve, Succeed.”
Bursts of light soon illuminated him as he stood in the March chill, posing for photos.
An exiting school worker looked at the scene, smiled and told Benjamin, “The Flash. That’s my new nickname for you.”
Apt it is.
Benjamin, who recorded the top times in the country this winter at 300 and 400 meters and was also the area’s top 55-meter sprinter, is The Journal News boys Westchester/Putnam indoor track athlete of the year.
Benjamin’s own “Believe, Achieve, Succeed” approach has garnered him a full track scholarship to UCLA. The Bruins were one of numerous Division I teams chasing Benjamin, who immediately ruled out suitors like Michigan for the simple reason, “I didn’t want to be cold anymore.”
Indeed, Benjamin’s roots are in a much warmer clime.
His mother, Jeanette Mason, who holds two masters and whose passion is books, and his dad, Winston Benjamin, who played professional cricket for the West Indies, are both from Antigua.
With his mother living in the Bronx and worrying about her son’s safety there, the Bronx-born only child attended school in Antigua until fourth grade and then again for seventh and eighth.
He didn’t run organized track in Antigua but usually won school sports-day races.
After his mother moved to Mount Vernon, Benjamin returned for high school.
As a freshman, he was a wide receiver and free safety on the JV football team. He joined track to improve his football speed but was so successful (in part, winning the Section 1 400 hurdles title that spring) that, although tempted, he never returned to football due to concern an injury could hamper his track performance.
“I’m not one where you have to know who I am,” he said of track’s relative obscurity.
Benjamin was sold on the sport early on, a team trip his freshman year to compete in California proving inspiring. He has also run for Antigua in the Ukraine at the World Youth Championships and competed in Antigua’s national meet.
“(These trips) opened my eyes to way more things than being in Mount Vernon,” he said. “I feel that’s what changed and motivated me. I saw what was out there and saw what the world is like.”
He doubts, though, that would have happened without Mount Vernon.
“I think I probably ended up here for a reason. If I’d been at some other school I don’t know I’d have been as successful,” he said, explaining he joined a team of talented athletes with knowledgeable coaches .
“Mount Vernon isn’t a bad place,” he added. “It is about what you make of it.”
Benjamin has made a lot of it with multiple sectional and two state records. He enters the spring looking for his third straight state title in the 400-meter hurdles, an event he won last year against a headwind in 52.12. Benjamin, who sets time goals each season but generally keeps them to himself, allows that he’d like to run under 51 in that event this spring.
Three seasons of training a year have helped him become him a top U.S. athlete but it’s not just the work.
“I’m pretty gifted naturally. Everyone has talents and mine are on the track,” Benjamin said.
Coach Marcus Green agrees Benjamin has a lot of natural talent but cited his “great work habit” and ability to set and reach goals as chief reasons for his success.
UCLA recruited Benjamin, who plans to study political science with an eye toward eventually going into business law, for the 400 hurdles. But he said, “I’m looking forward to see what they will do. I could run multiple events.”
And Benjamin, AKA “The Flash”, whose 300-meter 33.17 at the Armory Invitational this winter missed the all-time indoor national high school record by just .12 seconds, is also looking forward to what he’ll do.
“I’m not to my full potential. I know I have a whole other level,” he said.
The rest of The Journal News/Lohud Westchester/Putnam all-stars:
55 hurdles — Danny Elia, Sr., Sleepy Hollow
600 — Veeral Shah, Sr., Lakeland-Panas
1,000 — Martin O’Connell, Sr. , Eastchester
1,600 — Benito Muniz, Sr., Carmel
3,200 — Eion Nohilly, Jr., John Jay-Cross RiverDONE
4X200 relay — Mount Vernon (Shaquille Dacres, Jr.; Cody Housen, Sr.; Tyrese Moore, So.; Akeim Brown, Sr.)
4X400 relay — Mount Veronon (Rai Benjamin, Sr., Shaquille Dacres, Jr.; Robert Romney, Sr.; Cody Housen, Sr.)
4X800 relay — Pleasantville (Eric Hughes, Jr.; JC Yahia, So.; Eamon Coburn, Sr.; Patrick Watts, Sr.)
High jump — Thomas Samuelson, Sr., Iona Prep
Long jump — Brent DiVittorio, Sr., Brewster
Triple jump — Josh Diakanwa, Sr.,Iona Prep
Pole vault — Matt Fay, Sr., Iona Prep; Ryan Herrera-Murphy, Sr., Iona Prep
Shot put — Andrew Cannistraci, Jr., Iona Prep
Weight throw — Cameron Thompson, Jr., Lakeland-Panas
Coach of the year — Joe Intervallo, New Rochelle
55 — Courtney Mitchell, Sr., Mahopac
55 hurdles — John Burns, Sr., New Rochelle
300 — Cody Housen, Sr., Mount Vernon
600 — Patrick Watts, Sr., Pleasantville
1,000 — Ryan Bird, Sr., Rye
1,600 — Kevin Hazelwood, Jr., Brewster
3,200 — Jack Ryan, Jr., Rye
4X200 relay — Lakeland/Panas (Josh Dacres, Sr.; Cullen Malzo, Sr.; JT Aggrey, Sr., Jason Bingay, Sr.)
4X400 relay — New Rochelle (Ricardo Castello, Sr.; Daniel Dore’, Sr.; Aaron Crosswhite, Jr.; John Burns, Sr.)
4X800 relay— Rye (Andrew Willis, Sr.; Ryan Bird, Sr.;Jack Ryan, Jr.; Jack Smith, Sr.)
High jump — Michael Panzarino, So., Somers
Long jump — Alex Monaco, Sr., North Salem; Armand Pappas, Jr., Croton-Harmon
Triple jump — Kevin Aronne, Sr., Byram Hills
Pole vault — Jahkeem Wheatley, Sr., Iona Prep
Shot put — Frankie Hagan, Sr., Iona Prep
Weight throw — Xavier Tyler, Sr., Iona Prep
55 — Frank Vesuvio, Jr., Byram Hills; 55 hurdles — Brent DiVittorio, Sr., Brewster. 300 — Abdulhakem Byasbusha, Sr., Ossining. 600 — Cullen Malzo, Sr., Lakeland-Panas. 1,000 — Benito Muniz, Sr., Carmel. 1,600 — Mike Delfoy, Jr., Brewster. 3,200 — Greg Crowley, So., Scarsdale. 4X200 relay — New Rochelle (Nuku Tsiagbe, Jr.; Tyler Cohen, Jr.; Aaron Crosswhite, Jr.; Casey Marshall, Sr.).. 4X400 relay — Lakeland-Panas (Jason Bingay, Sr.; Cullen Malzo, Sr.; Ryan Cox, Sr.; Veeral Shah, Sr.); 4X800 relay — Lakeland/Panas (Ryan Cox, Sr; Cullen Malzo, Sr., Stephen Romer, Jr.; Veeral Shah, Sr.). High jump—Brent DiVittorio, Sr., Brewster; Fransico Wilson-King, Jr., Yonkers. Long jump — Kevin Aronne, Sr., Byram Hills. Triple jump — Obehi Adubor, Sr., Iona Prep; Izuchukwu Matthew, Sr., Yonkers. Pole vault — Dan Bomba, Sr., Iona Prep. Shot put — Xavier Tyler, Sr., Iona Prep. Weight throw — Jack Zimmerman, So., Briarcliff
55 — Rai Benjamin, Sr., Mount Vernon; Wyatt Brooks, Jr., North Rockland; Charles Tankeh, Jr., Our Lady of Lourdes; 55 hurdles — Nate Diedrick, Sr., John Jay-East Fishkill; Josh Etkind, Sr., Clarkstown North; Tarique Wilson, Sr., North Rockland; 300 — Rai Benjamin, Sr., Mount Vernon; Jared Benn, Sr., Suffern; Cody Housen, Sr., Mount Vernon; 600 — James Asselmeyer, Sr., Arlington; Veeral Shah, Sr., Lakeland-Panas; Patrick Watts, Sr., Pleasantville; 1,000 — James Asselmeyer, Sr., Arlington; Luke Gavigan, Sr., Tappan Zee; Martin O’Connell, Sr., Eastchestesr; 1,600 — Luke Gavigan, Sr., Tappan Zee; Kevin Hazelwood, Jr., Brewster; Benito Muniz, Sr., Carmel; 3,200—Patrick Hehir, Sr., Tappan Zee; Ben McDermott, Sr., Pearl River; Jack Ryan, Jr., Rye; 4X200 relay — Mount Vernon, Spring Valley, Suffern; 4X400 relay — Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, North Rockland; 4X800 relay—Arlington, Pleasantville, Rye; High jump — Terrel Davis, Jr., Beacon; Matt Goldsmith, Jr., John Jay-East Fishkill; Will Silverston, Sr., Nanuet; Long jump —Terrel Davis, Jr., Beacon; Brent Divittorio, Sr., Brewster; Rayvon Grey, Jr.; Beacon; Triple jump — Terrel Davis, Jr., Beacon; Josh Etkind, Sr., Clarkstown North; Rayvon Grey, Jr., Beacon; Pole vault — Jake Diamond, Sr., Suffern; Matt Leanza, Sr., Suffern; Jeffrey Sanawong, Sr., Nanuet; Shot put— Eric Favors, Sr., North Rockland; Parris Heath, Jr., Ramapo; Stanley Johnson, Sr., North Rockland; Weight throw — Eric Favors, Sr., North Rockland; Cameron Thompson, Jr., Lakeland-Panas; Jack Zimmerman, So., Briarcliff.