Beyond His Wildest Dreams


In Hawai’i, humility is valued above almost all else, but there is simply no other way to say this: The World’s Greatest Athlete is ours. If that, and the fact that the most powerful person in the world also grew up here, is too much for the others to deal with, then we will just keep it to ourselves as we celebrate our 50th year of statehood.
Castle High School graduate Bryan Clay can appreciate that. He won the decathlon at last year’s Olympics with one of the most dominant performances in history. A few minutes later Usain Bolt and the Jamaican relay team blew to a world record and Clay’s moment of triumph in the Beijing Bird’s Nest ended for much of the world.

The World’s Greatest Athlete has returned to his quiet life of faith, family and full-time training for the 2012 Games. Wife Sarah brings kids Jacob and Kate to “work” — the track at Azusa Pacific (Calif.) University, where Clay, 29, has trained since college — every day. All three, and the baby due early next year, are part of his remarkable life.
And life is good.

“I feel like I’m living the dream now,” Clay said. “I’m not making $5 million deals like Michael Phelps and some other athletes. I’m living comfortably though. We’ve got a house. We’d like a little bigger house, but it fits us. We’ve got cars, our food, we’re saving money. When you look at it in those terms we’ve got everything we need and want and life is just good. I’m not saying there are not any struggles because there are, but I’m living my dream.”

Clay remembers writing an essay in sixth grade about where he would be in 10 years. Back then he was learning to deal with his parents’ divorce, showing a penchant for acting out and not yet grounded in what would become a very close family based on faith, and his passion for track and field.

Still, even at 12, he wrote of becoming a “professional athlete, meeting his wife for lunch every day and having a few kids.” There would be enough money for a house, and his family, including the dog, would be healthy. He looks back now with genuine serenity.
“I don’t know if life gets much better than this,” Clay said. “We try to focus on being content with what we have.”

The Clays’ riches are immense, much like Bryan’s athletic talent. He chose one of the most demanding “events” in athletics and has risen to the top of the world. He won the silver medal in 2004 and dreams of becoming the first decathlete to win three medals in London in three years.

A minor injury kept him out of this year’s U.S. Championships, the qualifier for World Championships this week in Berlin. But next year Clay is focused on serious pursuit of the American (8,891 points) and World (9,032) records, which are clearly within his grasp.
“He has not reached his full potential,” said retired Maryland professor Frank Zarnowski, considered one of the world’s foremost decathlon authorities. “When (Bruce) Jenner won in Montreal in 1976 that was as good as he’d ever be — PRs (personal records) or near PRs in every event. Bryan has yet to approach that level. Perhaps it’s harder because he’s so much better than others.”

Zarnowski, for one, hopes Clay gets there.

“There is always room for an honest, and drug-free, champion in the USA and Bryan is it,” Zarnowski said. “He’s the real deal.”

Clay truly is living the dream. He remembers watching Olympic track on TV at age 8 and sensing it was “the purest form of competition.”

“You are either faster than me or not,” Clay recalls thinking. “I thought it was cool. Even at 8, I could feel what the Olympics stood for and was all about. I think back to that boyhood innocence of just wanting to compete type of thing.

“In athletics today we’ve lost so much of what it is about. It truly started as just a competition. You weren’t making tons of money and becoming famous. It was just about competition and good, friendly rivalries.”

Clay has found that niche in decathlon. Multi-event athletes bond over the intense grind their sport demands. The decathlon’s 10 competitions are run in the space of 36 hours, ending with the 1,500 meters, a race even long-distance specialists dread.
Clay has trained relentlessly for 10 events for the last decade, never truly giving his body a chance to heal from the intense demands. The sport is almost as much about managing pain and the risk of injury as it is about running, throwing and jumping. A tweak or twist can destroy months of work. Clay, like most multi-event athletes, has had his share.
“The demands on your body on a daily basis, six days a week, seven hours a day …,” Clay muses “Sometimes a body can’t take a break. Sometimes it breaks for you.”
But bathed in the brightest lights his sport has every four years at the Olympics, Clay has thrived.

“God was with me on those ones,” Clay said. “Not that He wasn’t with me when I was injured, but He definitely had a plan.” Clay still has his “absolutely crazy” dream, which was nurtured in Kane’ohe and is working its way into book form and headed to its third Olympic Games. Now he wants to share it with others.

“Kids like me that come from a small state have to remember dreams do come true,” Clay said. “I know it doesn’t seem like it. I speak to kids here, say everything pointed to dreams that don’t come true. My parents divorced so that dream did not happen. I was smaller than the typical athlete, another negative thing. I was not the smartest kid. I didn’t think I’d go to college. All those things build up and you start believing dreams don’t come true, they only come true in movies.

“I tell them you have got to figure a way to be 100 percent sold out for this dream. … I didn’t necessarily believe it would happen when I started, but every time I’d get a little closer, a little closer, a little closer, and I’d believe a little more, a little more, a little more. And next thing you know, it came true.”

He is not built like the “average” decathlete, even beyond his multi-ethnic makeup. Clay is the shortest Olympic decathlon winner in history at 5 feet 11 and he weighs 185 pounds. Trey Hardee and Tom Pappas, his Olympic teammates, are 6 inches and 25 pounds bigger. But Clay is remarkably quick and explosive, all but unbeaten in the sprints and meticulously dominant in throws.

“It’s too bad the public doesn’t know him better,” said USA Today track writer Dick Patrick. “Not only is he a good guy, but he’s a fun athlete to watch. He’s fast and explosive. He’s not built like a discus thrower, but he throws the hell out of the implement.”

Zarnowski believes that if Clay medals in London his unique feat “would give him a strong argument as the best decathlete of all time.”

But it would still be strange to see Clay anywhere other than under the radar. He is soft-spoken, amiable and extremely polite, as comfortable in a tuxedo as shorts and slippers, and more comfortable with his family than anywhere else on this earth.
Athletically he is, as one writer put it, the “functional opposite” of Phelps, who is “a competitor in many events, with a medal for each.”

And a bunch of money. Clay’s major sponsors are Nike, Visa and Hawai’i Pacific Health (home of the Straub commercials). He is on the Wheaties box and the cover of magazines, has chatted up Letterman, Leno and Oprah and thrown out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game. But there are no million-dollar endorsements and he doesn’t exactly stop traffic.

Maybe that will change after London, but Clay won’t. He is a humble guy. He just can’t help himself, or his sport of choice, which is rarely in the bright TV lights outside of Europe.
Clay is not alone. Dan O’Brien, the 1996 Olympic decathlon gold medalist and part of the “Dan and Dave” Reebok promotion four years earlier, is now a volunteer coach at Arizona State.

“Clay’s performance, of course, was nothing short of amazing itself (in Beijing),” USA Today Olympic writer Vicki Michaelis said. “But I don’t think that U.S. sports fans, now conditioned by the ESPN crawl and three-minutes-ago updates on the Internet, have the attention span any longer to fully appreciate the grueling, days-long dedication and mastery that the decathlon requires.

“Plus, America likes its track and field athletes loud and proud, which is part of why Bolt made such big headlines in this country. Clay’s nice-guy demeanor didn’t hurt him when it came to competition, but it contributed to him finishing near the back of the pack in the celebrity race.”

Patrick agreed: “He isn’t outrageous. He isn’t a self-promoter. He strikes me as a great guy, humble yet tenacious, bright, and devoted to his family. Those traits are admirable, but may not play so well in our celebrity conscious, reality show-driven culture.”
Witness another decathlon champion: Bruce Jenner is now more well-known as the father and stepfather on the reality series “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” than as the 1976 gold medalist.

Clay seeks fame and fortune his way.

He Twitters like crazy. August entries include “Disney Land again with the kids. There’s no doubt that Disney Land w/a 4yr old and 2yr old is harder than any workout I’ve ever done!” and “Gotta love it when the drug testers show up to my door at 10:00pm, and just AFTER I already went to the bathroom. Ugghhh!”

When his career is over he is open to motivational speaking, coaching or commentating.
His other priority, after faith and family, is making his vision of the Bryan Clay Foundation reality. He is in search of long-term partners/sponsors, especially in Hawai’i, who can help him create events and facilities and programs — athletic and academic — for kids from Hawai’i. Particularly those like Bryan Clay.

“I want to give them an opportunity to make their dreams come true,” said Clay, who recently opened an office for his foundation. “The more opportunities you give them, the more chance they can find something they are passionate about. … If you expose them to as much as possible — not bad stuff, but good life skills — we’re setting them up to have a better chance.

“Hawai’i is a very special place and so small, so if something works and it is special it can turn the whole state around. It’s difficult to do that in L.A. or Chicago. It’s not difficult to have a good influence in Hawai’i. I have all these dreams, goals and aspirations for Hawai’i, but I need to partner with people.”

He is The Greatest Athlete in the World, and one of the most remarkable sports stories in Hawai’i history. Bryan Clay will pursue his next dream in the real world.

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