By Tony James
Just as he seemed to be back in top form as an elite 400m athlete - ranked second in the world - it was suddenly all over for Tim Benjamin. In the summer of 2009, the sixth fastest British 400m athlete of all time announced his retirement at the age of 27.
The series of illnesses and injuries that dogged his career and forced him to miss the previous year’s Beijing Olympics had forced Benjamin to the conclusion it was time to go.
“Taking an individual or relay spot from an aspiring 2012 Olympian would be unfair when I am unable to enjoy competing the way I used to,” was how he put it. “I am enormously grateful for the opportunities and friends this amazing sport has brought me and look forward to using the passion I have for it in another way in the near future.”
But friends knew Benjamin’s decision to quit the sport he loved would have been anything but a knee-jerk reaction and the man himself agrees. “I’m very analytical,” he admits. “And sometimes for an athlete that’s not always a good thing.
“But when you go into business you have to be analytical and my ambition was to build a brand and develop it. I saw it as a really exciting challenge. I knew it was the right time to move on.”
And so it has proved. Five years on he’s the boss and driving force behind The Fitness Space group of health clubs, now a fast growing franchise with an eventual target of 40-50 outlets.
Benjamin reckoned he had spotted a gap in the fitness market while he was still an elite athlete: “When I started looking seriously at the fitness business, I saw how unsupportive the environment was in traditional gyms.
“I came from a world where I had my own coach, physiotherapist, nutritionists and all sorts of people looking after me. I was used to a high level of care and I wanted to create that in a commercial environment.”
So The Fitness Space was born - a small specialised health club with the latest equipment, a warm, caring atmosphere and highly qualified staff, an environment designed to attract the top end of the market.
“We analysed the state of the industry and found that 12.1 per cent of the population actually goes to a gym and 26 per cent would like to, but are afraid to go,” Benjamin says. “We try to attract people who haven’t been to a gym before by offering top class specialised services, from state-of-the-art equipment to personal trainers, DNA testing and hot yoga. We cater for more mature clients - 53 per cent of the membership is aged from 39 to 49 and 60 per cent are women.
“We are entirely focused on getting our membership the health and fitness results they deserve. All too often people give up exercise due to an unsupportive and intimidating environment. Our members are assigned a fitness coach, who monitors activity and helps them stay on track to reach their goals. We create an environment in which results are inevitable.”
When he retired from international athletics, having competed in every major championship, Benjamin knew the lessons he’d learned as an elite athlete would stand him in good stead.
“I wanted to bring the elite approach to everyday fitness by creating clubs that had a community feel as well as a performance edge,” he says. “The fitness industry has proved fascinating. You’ve always had people who enjoy exercise being a target for gyms and health clubs. Now the growth is coming from people with healthy living aspirations looking for an environment that helps them sustain a fitness programme. That’s our market.”
Benjamin’s decision to franchise his business in 2014 was an immediate success, according to Fitness Space general manager Paula Edwards, who says: “Because of our unique proposition, we attract members who will comfortably invest in their fitness beyond their monthly membership.
“On top of that, the quality of training provided by Tim and the team means we are able to sell secondary products and services to our members, supporting them on their fitness journeys and ensuring the club’s success.”
On the track Benjamin had more than his share of setbacks, as he sought to justify his reputation as one of British athletic’s great hopes and often it was only steely determination that kept him going.
He was an outstanding junior runner, moving swiftly through the ranks of Welsh athletics, taking six age group titles between 1996 and 1999. An epic performance for Wales came at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, when he ran a magnificent first leg in the Wales 4x400m relay team that took silver after finishing one hundredth of a second behind England.
The year 2005 was probably Benjamin’s finest. He was the highest British athlete in any event in the world rankings and broke the sub-45 second barrier, when he beat the then world champion, Jeremy Warner, at the world athletics final.
But injury and health issues loomed. He missed the 2006 Commonwealth Games because of a knee injury, was forced to withdraw from the 2008 Olympics because of sinus problems and admitted: “I very nearly didn’t come back to the sport. I definitely thought about quitting - it crossed my mind lots of times.
“Pulling out of Beijing was really frustrating. It was the end of a lot of things going wrong for me. And when I started training again I wasn’t really enjoying it.
“I thought: ‘You’ve got to enjoy it and look at it differently. Unless you change your way of thinking, you can’t carry on.’”
It was then he made the dramatic decision to change trainers and training methods by joining former Olympic sprint champion Linford Christie’s stable, which: “Completely changed my outlook on things.
“Training with Linford Christie was completely different to what I was used to. The atmosphere was far less intense and I was going with the flow a bit more. It was working well.
“It balanced my life out, so that athletics didn’t play such a huge part in my personal life and I felt great for it.”
And so he should have done. He married his schooldays sweetheart Natalie Lewis, an accomplished Welsh middle distance specialist in her own right.
Then came the bombshell announcement that he was retiring in the middle of the 2009 season. Ironically, Benjamin had appeared to be returning to top form and scored a victory for the GB team in the European championships in Portugal.
Afterwards he said: “I’m happy and enjoying my athletics again. I have had a largely injury-free winter and it was fantastic to get the GB call. I was not focusing on the championships, all I was trying to do was to have fun and see what happened.”
Back in winning ways once more, Benjamin was being tipped for a place at the 2012 London Olympics when a persistent hamstring injury forced him to make his momentous decision.
But as he explained: “Although the decision may have seemed sudden, it was the culmination of incessant setbacks and I was determined to end my career on my own terms when the time arrived.”
So ended the career of one of the best - and unluckiest - British athletes of modern times, but a new career as an entrepreneurial businessman is only just beginning.
“I’ve never been so driven and busy,” Benjamin says. “I’m loving every minute of it.”