Athletics: Benjamin speeds back from brink to take on world's best in Helsinki

'I couldn't stand up. I couldn't even lift my head off the pillow or I got screaming headaches', he tells Mike Rowbottom
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The Independent Online

Four months ago the man who recently beat the Olympic 400m champion in a sub-45sec time was reduced to lying on the floor of his home in Burnham in Berkshire after a back injection to release a joint had gone wrong.

Benjamin began suffering from a severe headache and vomiting as fluid leaked from his spinal column, altering the balance with fluid surrounding his brain.

"I was taken home, and I was sick again as soon as I came through the front door," he recalled. "I couldn't stand up. I couldn't even lift my head off the pillow or I got screaming headaches. I was home for about a week, but it wasn't getting any better. I could only eat snack food because I couldn't get up to cook."

Benjamin's father Mike, a Professor of Anatomy at Cardiff University, insisted his son seek more help and he was admitted to the Wellington Hospital in London. But things got worse before they got better: an attempt to seal the breach in Benjamin's spinal column with an injection of his blood exacerbated the problem.

"My headache didn't go away even when I was lying down. I had to have painkilling injections for two days. I couldn't even lift my head to sip water, so they had to put me on a drip."

Meanwhile, rumours were rife about the 23-year-old Welshman's plight. From his hospital bed he read reports that his career was over after he had suffered a stroke. Roger Black, the former Olympic 400m silver medallist and double European champion who has acted as Benjamin's mentor since 2004, was told he had had a heart attack.

Benjamin has always researched his various injuries on the internet but this time he had to ask his girlfriend, the 1500m runner Natalie Lewis, to make enquiries. "She said to me, 'Oh my God, there are cases of dural leaks lasting seven years.' That was it. I just had to wait and see what happened."

Benjamin remained in hospital for a fortnight before he recovered to the point where he was allowed to go for a five-minute jog - at which point he pulled his calf muscle.

Having Black to turn to at such times - the two were put in touch by Benjamin's coach Tony Lester, who had helped Black improve his sprinting technique shortly before he won his Olympic silver medal in 1996 - has proved hugely beneficial.

"We have a lot in common," Benjamin said. "We come from a similar background - Roger's dad was a doctor - and we've suffered from a lot of injuries. Roger has been there and done it, and we talk about once a fortnight. He can discuss so many aspects with me."

Black said: "Tim is always on a knife-edge with injury, just like I was. I understand how he feels. When I was a young runner I used to be around Daley Thompson and Seb Coe. You always listen to people who have done what you want to do. But it's a case of Tim coming to me whenever he wants to."

Immediately after his startling run on 22 July at Crystal Palace - ironically, the place where he had that fateful injection - Benjamin reacted defiantly. Having run 44.75sec from lane seven to overwhelm the top Americans, including the Athens champion Jeremy Wariner, he was entitled to insist that the talent which had earned him the World Youth 200m title in 1999 and the European Junior 400m title two years later had never deserted him.

"The last three to four years have been wrecked by injuries and I've still managed to be the British No 1. I've wanted to burst sometimes, because these people don't know the hell I've been through. I didn't train this year between January and May, and now I have run 44.75. You can imagine the confidence that gives me."

Black never doubted Benjamin's ability to attain sub-45sec territory this year after he ran 45.11sec in his first race of the season, barely two weeks after getting back into spikes. "Watching Tim over the last 50 metres at Crystal Palace was really exciting," he said. "Tim has had sprinting technique ingrained in him as a youngster, which means he is technically more efficient when fatigue sets in. I used to let my hips sink, and my shoulders would hunch up. But he didn't crumble."

Reaching the semi-finals at the Olympics last year offered Benjamin valuable experience for the coming challenge. "Things are slightly different for me than they were going into the Olympics," he said. "There's a bit more expectation on me. It might happen for me in Helsinki - I know I can run faster. And if it doesn't happen there, it will in the next couple of years."

Black is also cautious - but he cannot suppress a sense of anticipation. "I don't know what is going to happen in Helsinki," he said. "Realistically, Wariner is likely to be running low 44s, and Tim could even run 44.5 and not medal. But Tim is now going into a major championships, and he's fit and he's beaten all the fastest people in the world. That's a lovely place to be."