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Bryan Clay Back in the Mix

Bryan Clay did not watch as fellow American Trey Hardee became the 2009 world decathlon champion. Clay, the 2008 Olympic champion, was at home in Southern California. Track and field was the furthest thing from his mind.

He called it a “mental break.”

Only one year earlier, Clay had dominated the Olympic competition in epic fashion. He took the lead after the first event, and when he collapsed to the floor of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium one day later, he had won by 240 points, the largest margin since 1972.

But there was little time for rest.

That performance led him to having his photo displayed on Wheaties boxes and being thrust into the national spotlight. But when a hamstring injury derailed his training in the summer of 2009, none of that fame mattered. Clay had to withdraw from the U.S. Championships in June, and that meant no worlds — even though he would have been fit to compete by then.

Clay’s first emotion was disappointment; frustration that he would not be able to defend his title as the “World’s Greatest Athlete.” Then came re-evaluation.

As Hardee took the world championship by a 150-point margin, Clay considered retirement. He was physically drained. With a wife and two kids — as well as an Olympic gold medal — he didn’t know whether he had the drive to go through another Olympic cycle.

“I was able to achieve what I had set out to do since I was 8 years old, and that was win a gold medal,” said Clay, who also earned a silver medal at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games and captured a gold medal a year later at the world championships. “Really, at this point it was kind of like, What’s next? What’s my next goal? What do I want to do? I couldn’t convince myself to keep going for the money or for fame or those types of things. I really had to figure out: Why do I want to do this?

“I realized I wasn’t done running yet. I just needed a break.”

Now break time is over and Clay is back on track and is working toward being back on top of the medal stand at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Clay plans to compete in three decathlons this year — the U.S. Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, as well as two events in Europe. His first decathlon is this weekend in Austria, and it will be an interesting test as Clay will face off against many of the world’s best, including Hardee.

It wasn’t an easy transition for Clay to come back.

Clay stopped training around the time of the 2009 U.S. Championships. He took the long way home to avoid driving by the track. He stopped checking results on the computer. He didn’t even tune into the world championships on TV.

Instead, he spent time with his family. He went to Disneyland. He went to the beach. He just tried to be a good dad and husband.

“I just really got away from the sport and everything and allowed myself to have a break for like the first time in 12 years,” Clay said.

Finally, in September, Clay got that itch to compete again. As it turned out, the mental break was just what he needed.

In March, Clay showed up refreshed and 15 pounds lighter at the World Indoor Championships in Doha, Qatar. He proceeded to win his second consecutive heptathlon championship, holding off second-place Hardee by 20 points. He became the first person to defend that title.

Now, Clay’s likeness is back on Wheaties boxes again — the new Wheaties Fuel, this time — and the 30-year-old has his sights set on defending his title where it counts the most: the London 2012 Olympic Games.

“You know, I’m just having fun, and it’s been a little while since I’ve been able to come out and have fun,” Clay said from the Mt. SAC Relays at his alma mater, Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif., where he still trains. “I’m just looking to come out, have fun, keep things going …

“I feel like I am in great shape. I’m ready to compete. I feel like I’m in better shape than I normally am, and I’m looking forward to what they year has to offer.”

In that case, the world better watch out.

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Bryan Clay Back in the Mix

Date: May 27, 2010

By: Chrös McDougall

Red Line Editorial