By Wil Crews
Out of the nine Samford University Bulldogs to qualify for the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field East Regional, only three performed well enough to advance to the championships.
One of those athletes was former Opelika High School track and field star Ben Garner, who ran for Opelika from 2013-17.
“I went in ranked 15th, and they take top 12 to national,” Garner, a fifth-year senior, said. “I was close coming in and I told myself I was going to get the automatic qualifier. It was definitely the best race of my life.”
Before settling at Samford, Garner developed as a runner under the tutelage of head coach Jimmy Johnson and assistant coach (Garner’s distance coach) Tony Benitez.
“I wouldn’t be here today really without either of them (Johnson and Benitez), mainly without coach B. because he was like more of father figure in my life,” Garner said. “I think the best thing coach Johnson did was, he really just let me do my thing. Him kind of taking his hands off, and letting coach B. work with me was like a major reason I think why I had success in high school.”
During his time at OHS, Garner was a four-time individual Alabama State Champion, three-time team State Champion and two-time team MVP. Additionally, Garner gathered attention from collegiate programs as the Opelika record holder in the 1600 and 2 mile races, among other accolades.
“Growing up in Opelika, it was very different from Birmingham and Samford,” Garner said. “I think also the biggest thing is my teammates in high school, it was just so much fun. We kicked everybody’s butt.”
At the NCAA East Regional at Indiana University last week, Garner, 23, recorded a personal best time of 8:40.15 in the men’s 3000-meter steeplechase to secure eighth place and send him to the championships.
“The 3k is kind of my wheelhouse,” Garner said.
When he crossed the finish line and realized he had qualified for the championships, the moment almost seemed too good to be true.
“It’s something I wanted to do even before I went to Samford,” Garner said. “It took a while to set in, but at the same time, I was blown away. It was insane. Having my teammates and family there, too, it was unreal.”
Garner and his teammates Ashton Domingue (men’s javelin) and Brittany Bishop (women’s pole vault) will compete in the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships which are currently being held in Eugene, Oregon, through June. 11.