Kai Benedict and his dad, Chris Benedict, were driving west on Interstate-80 from their home in Reno, Nevada. More than 250 miles lay ahead of them before they could reach their final destination: Palo Alto, California.
With so much time in Kai’s hands, all he could do was sit back and think. The minutes that passed felt like hours, and thoughts began to linger in his head as he saw nothing but cars passing back and forth for hours on end.
The uncertainty of his future began to bother him, as his senior year of high school was winding down. He was concerned about whether he’d be able to take his love of running to the university level and where exactly that would be.
Hours from stepping onto a track and leaving the unsettledness aside for a moment, he began discussing his concerns with his dad. Kai told Chris he didn’t think he was up to the par set by other top runners.
“I said, ‘Dude, you know, you don’t really have a grip on your own potential yet, you got so much in front of you,’ ” Chris says. “And he’s like, ‘Yeah, Dad. But you know I’m just not that fast.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s what you think now, but you’re still growing into who you are.’ ”
Those encouraging words would resonate with Kai, leading him to one of the best races in his high school career at the 2015 Stanford Invitational. He finished the 3,000-meter race in first place out of two heats, with a time of 8:32.38, the best time in the whole nation.
“I said, ‘Don’t close the door on that just yet,’ and that was on the way down,” Chris says. “And on the way back home, I said, ‘Oh, so you still think you’re not so fast,’ and he just smiled.”
Kai was born in Reno a little more than a month before he was due.
“Kai was born on Mother’s Day,” says Amy Cuatowsky, Kai’s mom. “He came in early. He’s always been impatient to get somewhere fast.”
His parents had already split before he was born, so Kai had a very different childhood than most kids. Drawn by the line of split custody, he’d go on and share his life equally — right down the middle — with both parents. He lived by a schedule that had him spend two days at his mom’s house, two days at his dad’s house, followed by five days back at his mom’s house, five days at his dad’s house and so on.
“His mom and I lived in the same town — we lived pretty close,” Chris says. “As far as exposing him (to) … different activities, that was a shared priority for both of us.”
One of those activities was soccer.
It was in the fields of Clayton Middle School where 5-year-old Kai first learned the aspects of competition at the local recreational league. Kai’s parents took part in his development as a player, both serving as coaches at different points of his life.
Amy was heavily involved in Kai’s coaching during his early days of childhood, pushing him to find different ways to help stimulate his development as an athlete.
When Kai was about 10 years old, he needed a better coach to develop him. His mom’s coaching experience was limited because she had never played soccer competitively. Chris stepped up.
“I coached the team in the beginning, but his dad coached the team as he got more skillful,” Amy says. “I was an athlete in high school, but I never played soccer so I didn’t know how to coach them with that.”
Under his dad’s tutelage, Kai began to develop the intensive skills and demanding endurance the sport requires. He learned the competitiveness and participatory philosophy behind his recreational league, which was practicing good sportsmanship, teamwork and the basic skills needed to be a well-rounded athlete.
“The only thing I did really … (until) the start of middle school was just play soccer,” Kai says. “I guess I never really got serious enough with that to do anything with it — it was just kind of fun.”
By the time he had entered middle school, things had changed. His school offered only four sports, and soccer wasn’t one of them. With only four eight-week seasons, Kai decided to try all of them and find the best fit.
He felt that he could never be great during his time playing basketball, regardless of the team skills he had learned before. He tried wrestling for a short stint in the spring, and his coach saw enough to encourage him to pursue the sport. But by then, Kai had started to get a good feel for what he wanted to do.
In cross country, he showed his capability to consistently finish in the top 10 during meets, and in some meets, he finished as high as the top three. But he couldn’t see how distance running and wrestling would be a good mix. Finally, excelling on the track sealed the deal — he would be a year-round runner.
He had found his sport, but he still lacked maturity, as his dedication to running was not there. This mentality would carry on to his freshman year at McQueen High School.
“I told the coach I wanted to be a high jumper, and then I would just go and sleep on the high jump mats in the gym,” Kai says. “So, yeah, there was not that much dedication to be good in middle school.”
This applied to cross country as well. The cross country team had an uninspiring performance in regional competition during Kai’s first season. Finishing 10th out of 12 teams, it didn’t even come close to making it to state.
A losing effort like this only reassured Kai that there was no need to keep focus on track once the season began in spring. In one of his preseason practices, he was told to go on a 45-minute run.
He did, but not for practice.
“The junior on our team was like, ‘Yo, I’m not really feeling this. Are you guys?’ ” Kai says. “So we went into his car, and I think we went to Burger King just to go get fries and drive back. We ran a hill a couple times, we were kind of out of breath, and we went back after 45 minutes.”
This lax mentality continued until the start of track season, when new coach Ed Parise took over and showed Kai the amount of effort it truly takes to build a successful program. Kai never saw his coach receive any recognition for it, making him realize that if his coach could put in the hard work without reward, then so could he.
“If I found out that he was not doing (long runs) or he looked sluggish or wasn’t communicating, it wasn’t anything where it was like huge or disciplinary,” Ed says of his time coaching Kai. “It was more like I’d get on him and be more motivational, like, ‘Hey, you got these goals.’ ”
Kai’s level of commitment changed dramatically, as driving to a restaurant instead of practicing turned into driving up to 8,000 or even 9,000 feet of elevation just to train during his senior year.
Kai officially visited UC Berkeley in February 2015, before his last track season began, to see whether it would offer him a scholarship.
In the meeting, the Bears’ main concern was that Kai’s finishing times up to that point just weren’t that great, and he came out knowing that he needed to do more.
Ed had seen many runners fall apart over the years because of either the stress of trying to run at the next level or for money, and he wasn’t about to let that happen to one of his runners.
“I said, ‘You can’t sit there and sabotage yourself. There are plenty of schools out there at the highest level who still have a little bit of money on the side (for scholarships),’ ” Ed says. “If you pop a time at the end of the season, they’re going to come looking for you.’ ”
Keeping in mind what his coach had told him, Kai kept in touch with Cal and went on to run his senior year season of track looking for a breakout meet.
It was April 11, 2015, and Kai was competing in one of the biggest high school meets in the country at the Arcadia Invitational in Arcadia, California. One of the most anticipated events every year is the 3,200-meter, his event at the meet.
During this race, Kai was to able to showcase a time of 8:59.80 to add his name to a historic list of nine-minute-breaking performances. This came a week after he ran the 3,000-meter event at Palo Alto.
By the last week of April, he had signed his letter of intent to commit to Cal.
This past summer, Kai competed at the USA Track & Field Junior Outdoor Championships in Clovis, California. He ran the 3,000-meter steeplechase with a finishing time of 8:56.35 to land him a spot at the IAAF U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
Just a year after that car ride with his dad, Kai wore the red, white and blue while running in the second of two 3,000-meter steeplechase heats. His time of 8:51.37 qualified him for one of the 15 spots in the final, where he shaved two seconds off his time for a new personal best.
“When I stop and think about it, I’m like, ‘Wow, who would’ve known,’ ” Chris says.
It was only the eighth time Kai had run the steeplechase up to that point, showing him where his maturity had led him.
“He’s just going to work harder and see where that whole running thing will take him, but I don’t think the running will ever go away as he gets older,” Amy says. “He’s got all the talent and all the drive to go wherever he wants to go, and that’s a really winning combination.”
The dreams of becoming an All-American, or even competing at an Olympics Trials, may well be on the horizon. One thing is for certain, though — his developed mentality will carry him further than his fast legs ever could.
“If I want to do something,” Kai says, “I want to be all in.”
Oscar Oxlaj covers cross country. Contact him at [email protected]