MOUNT VERNON — Rai Benjamin has always been focused.
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His mom, Jeanette Mason, constantly told him to look ahead, think of himself at 30 and who he wanted to be at that age, and then mentally work his way back to plan how he'd get there.
And every day she'd also tell him he was going to college.
College, her son would say. College and college football and then the NFL.
That was his plan.
His mom believed in him.
When she went to the nurse's office at the beginning of his freshman year at Mount Vernon High School, she announced, "Sports is going to take him to college."
Plenty of parents think this, and her remark was met with skepticism.
But she knew.
She and her son just had the sport wrong in mind.
Mason recalled the encounter and her son recalled his dream of wanting to play in the NFL on Friday as the Mount Vernon school district and city honored Benjamin, who anchored the U.S. men's 4x400-meter relay team to the Olympic gold medal this summer and who broke the American record and existing world record to capture silver in the 400-meter hurdles.© Mark Vergari/The Journal News Mount Vernon Olympic gold and silver medalist Rai Benjamin rides on top of a truck during a parade past neighborhood Mount Vernon schools on Friday.
Benjamin, who looked out on a crowd of about 200 people, some wearing KINGBEN Olympic T-shirts (a reference to his nickname), received proclamations, plaques and the key to the city.© Mark Vergari/The Journal News Mount Vernon Mayor Shawn Patterson-Howard presents the key to the city to Olympic gold and silver medalist Rai Benjamin during a ceremony to honor his accomplishments on the steps of city hall on Friday.
And, moreover, he received praise for being someone who has worked for everything he has gotten and who has made his hometown proud.
"We come together to celebrate a young Black history-maker at a time when people who look like him are not always celebrated," said Sylvia Gadsen, the city's recreation director.
Gadsen said a brief prayer in which she asked that Benjamin "continue to bring us together" and "bless us with his strength."
Benjamin didn't get to the steps of City Hall by accident, friends and coaches noted.
Former Mount Vernon track coach Marcus Green said a "village came together and poured love into Rai" and he poured it back.
He said he was proud of the way Benjamin, who earned a degree in political science in 2019 from the University of Southern California, represents Mount Vernon around the world.
Benjamin's best buddy from high school, fellow runner Cody Housen, who's now a New York City cop, used to walk to and from school with Benjamin, both living in the city's Fleetwood section.
Kids talk about a lot of stuff but their walks were often serious, the conversation focused on dreams and goals.
"It's all determination, mindset and the goal you have. He always had the mindset. We'd talk to each other: 'You've got to make it. Chase your dream,'" Housen recalled of their talks.
Amado Lambert, who coached against Benjamin before becoming Mount Vernon High's track coach soon after Benjamin graduated in 2015, said, "Rai always found a way to be in the conversation, even as an underclassman. He was very, very focused and became unbeatable at a certain point. ... Everybody knew he was exceptional. He was special."
Chris Malcolm, a volunteer high school coach and founder of the New Horizons club track program in Mount Vernon, first began instructing Benjamin when he was a freshman.
He was immediately impressed with how Benjamin handled speed drills. He calls him a natural who, with coaching, "just blossomed into something special."© Mark Vergari/The Journal News Students and children cheer for Mount Vernon native and Olympian Rai Benjamin, as he rides at the top of a truck during a parade past neighborhood city schools. Here they pass the Holmes school on East Lincoln Avenue.
Malcolm recalled Benjamin, who played just a year of football, being called up from the freshman team to varsity in ninth grade, being in tears when he failed to qualify to compete in the 400 hurdles at the state track and field championships.
"He wanted so desperately to go to the state championships. I decided to drive him up (to them in Syracuse)," Malcolm recalled.
Sitting beside Malcolm, watching others compete, Benjamin promised he was going to qualify the following year, which he did.
"That young man worked from that day forward to be better," Malcolm said of the future eight-time collegiate All-American, who holds six different New York state high school track records.
Friday's event wasn't without light moments.
Former Mount Vernon track and current cross-country coach Adrian Rosario said the young Benjamin couldn't keep his hands off footballs and he had to "pound it" into Benjamin's mind that, football is "not for you."
"He was one of the most immature, annoying kids I ever met," Rosario said to much laughter, as he compared the then-freshman to a gnat at a cookout.
While former football coach Ric Wright would have loved for Benjamin to remain with football, where he was a wide receiver and punter, he said his talent for pure running was clear.
During 5 a.m. sprint sessions, "This young kid beats my special players. He's just dusting everybody," he said.
He, like many on hand, indicated Benjamin represents the under-reported good story about Mount Vernon.
"We hear so much bulls--- about Mount Vernon ... Look what we've produced here," Wright said.
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First Olympic medal: Mount Vernon's Benjamin breaks U.S. and world 400 hurdles marks but takes silver
Dr. Kenneth R. Hamilton, Mount Vernon's superintendent of schools, said the district was honoring Benjamin for his "tireless pursuit of excellence in the classroom and on our fields."
Calling him an "incredible role model," Mount Vernon Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard thanked Benjamin for his "distinguished, dignified, dedicated and determined" approach to his craft and said he was an "incredible ambassador."
When she handed him the key to the city, fire truck sirens blared but not loud enough to drown out cheers from the assembled crowd.
Benjamin thanked by name his former track teammates who were on hand, singling out as his "role model" 2012 Mount Vernon graduate Steven Gayle, who went on to run for the University of Alabama and for Jamaica at the world championships.
Of Gayle, Housen and the other former teammates he noted, he said, "These guys made those (high school) memories special for me."
He also praised his mother, who he said would never buy him his requested Air Jordans (he joked he now gets them for free) but every year would spend $120 on a new pair of track spikes for him.
"Without my mom, I don't know how I'd do it," he said.
Benjamin, whose day began on the back of a flatbed truck as part of a caravan that stopped at the city's schools, said he was surprised so many people came out to greet him, just as he was surprised by the support he received after feeling he had let people down by winning only silver in the Olympic 400 hurdles, despite breaking the existing world record in that race.
"I went out to win and realize now it was so much more than that," he said.
"It's been an incredible journey," the 24-year-old said.
But it's a journey, given his age, likely still in its infancy, and there may well be more City Hall gatherings and parades for Benjamin.
Benjamin, who lives and trains in California, will soon begin training for next year's world championships and should be a favorite to medal at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
"It's the same mission," he concluded. "I'm just a lot more focused and driven."
Nancy Haggerty covers cross-country, track & field, field hockey, skiing, ice hockey, girls lacrosse and other sporting events for The Journal News/lohud. Follow her on Twitter at both @HaggertyNancy and at @LoHudHockey.
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Mount Vernon salutes hometown hero as Olympian Rai Benjamin is honored
Source : https://www.msn.com/en-us/sports/more-sports/mount-vernon-salutes-hometown-hero-as-olympian-rai-benjamin-is-honored/ar-AAOjtRK10804