Bryan Clay owns gold and has a heart of gold, too

The reigning World’s Greatest Athlete has his biggest muscles in his heart.

Bryan Clay, the 2008 Olympic decathlon champion, was honored last Saturday as Visa Humanitarian of the Year by USA Track & Field.

The Bryan Clay Foundation, which he established in 2005, has raised more than $140,000 for schools and has influenced the lives of thousands of children, mostly in Southern California and Hawaii, where he grew up. Kidfit Clinics build self-confidence through athletics and a wellness campaign has been adopted in schools for grades kindergarten through sixth.

Last month, the Fit4Fall 5K Run in Clay’s hometown, Glendora, Calif., raised funds for the foundation and also collected food and clothing for underprivileged families.

Clay is more than a figurehead. He goes to schools and hosts clinics to help kids realize their full potential through healthy living, physical fitness and just plain doing the right thing.

“I think sometimes we underestimate our own influence as athletes,” Clay said. “I always think

I’m not a Kobe Bryant or a Shaquille O’Neal, so these kids really won’t care if I come talk to them. What I’m learning is kids listen and they do care.”

And so do their parents. “I have moms come up to me afterwards and say, ‘What would your advice be for a mom that is dealing with the same things you went through?’” Clay said.

Clay’s parents divorced when he was young and he said he had thoughts of suicide as a pre-teen. He also struggled with drugs and alcohol and rebelled against authority.

Clay said kids will approach him and say “things that you would never expect a kid to ever come up and admit to a complete stranger, but they do. And when you hear those types of things, when you hear people say, ‘Thank you so much for sharing, you really made a difference in my life,’ that makes it totally worthwhile. There’s a chance that I just saved this kid from maybe having to go down the same path that I went down.”

Clay, who will turn 32 next month, said he was fortunate to have mentors who steered him in the right direction.

“I always tell people, ‘I didn’t get to where I am because I was really good, or because I worked really hard,’” he said. “There are so many people that walked alongside me and gave of themselves. They spoke truth into my life when I needed to hear it. They took time out of their busy schedules and maybe sometimes away from their own kids and own family to pour into me so I didn’t become a casualty.”

Far from it. Earlier this week, Clay went to Las Vegas for a few hours for a speaking engagement, dashed home to his wife and three kids – ages 6, 4 and 22 months- then flew to Daytona Beach, Fla., for athletic testing with the U.S. Olympic Committee. This weekend, he’s jetting off to Qatar to attend a gala dinner and receive a sizeable donation for his foundation from a charitable institution with a similar purpose. He also had to squeeze in some workouts.

Luckily for Clay, unlike other types of muscle, cardiac muscle never gets tired.

“It’s kind of a quick turnaround trip for me, but it’s worth it to try to get as much funds in my foundation as possible so that it can stay afloat,” he said. “I won’t be doing as much in terms of events and things for my foundation this year, because my time is so limited.”

Clay will be back in serious training for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Although he missed both the 2009 and 2011 world championships because of injury, he wants to become the first decathlete to medal in three Summer Games. He also earned the silver at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

Clay plans to compete a full indoor season in the heptathlon (the decathlon’s indoor counterpart), and then roll into the outdoor season. Trey Hardee, the 2009 and 2011 World Champion, and Ashton Eaton, the 2011 silver medalist, are his top rivals in the United States. Some have predicted an American sweep of the decathlon in London.

“With every success comes a new goal and a new challenge,” said Clay, who in March will release a book called “Redemption” that is part autobiography and part inspirational.

Clay does not believe he has to win another gold medal to retain his stature and influence.

“I’ve already accomplished everything that I wanted to accomplish,” he said, “and people are partnering with me not because of what they’re hoping I’m going to do in 2012 — they hope I do well — but they’re really partnering with me because of what I have accomplished already. They understand that I have the qualities that they’re looking for, that I’ve already had success.

“It’s a win-win. There’s no risk because I’ve already done it.”

Clay said it was important for him to start his own foundation.

“I’ve never been one of those people that wanted to latch onto somebody else’s deal,” he said. “I like to get my hands dirty and work and put in the effort and I like to be able call it my own at the end of the day.

“I like to be able to step back and say, ‘Look, I worked hard, here are the results.’ ”

Clay credits the people who help him for making the foundation work and for giving him the idea in the first place.

A friend suggested he start the foundation after he earned the Olympic silver medal. “He knew my heart and knew that I wanted to give back as much as I could, and I’ve always been passionate about kids and track and field and sport,” Clay said.

Clay said he had no idea what a foundation would entail, especially the meetings, the rules and the regulations.

“For the first three or four years, through the 2008 Olympics, it was very difficult to keep the foundation above water and to keep money coming in,” he said. “As recently as last year we were looking at possibly having to close the doors on our office and work out of our home. There have definitely been tough times, but I think people are starting to see the things we’re doing in the community and they’re starting to see the results of it. People are coming on board and supporting the foundation. It’s been absolutely amazing and it feels great.”

Clay wants to expand into other countries as well as the United States.

“I’m looking forward to growing my network and possibly growing my reach and my sphere of influence,” said Clay, who dreams of opening his own facility, like an Olympic Training Center on a smaller scale.

He also works with the Century Council to discourage underage drinking and participates with USA Track & Field’s Win With Integrity program to promote living a healthy, active, drug-free lifestyle.

“He is clearly a person who understands that the universe does not necessarily revolve around him,” said Mike McNees, interim CEO for USA Track & Field. “For someone who walks around every day with the title of World’s Greatest Athlete, that’s an impressive thing.”

McNees said that Clay’s dedication to finding out “what can he do to take advantage of his blessings and his gifts that he’s developed, and how he can use those things to serve other people takes a lot of humility and genuine concern for other people.”

Yet Clay makes it clear that he never had any illusions about what it would mean to follow in the footsteps of Jim Thorpe, who was first called the World’s Greatest Athlete by Swedish King Gustav V when he won the decathlon gold medal in the 1912 Games.

“Even before I won the silver medal in 2004,” Clay said, “I don’t want to say I was a pessimist, but I was very much a realist that it’s just a title; it’s not going to change my life. I still tell people that today. I still have to do everything that everybody else has to do, I still have to bust my butt; I still have to work hard, still have to sacrifice.”

Although he capitalized on sponsorship and speaking opportunities, and even appeared on the front of Wheaties cereal boxes, he said, “I used to always say that I would win the gold medal and nobody would care, and still there’s part of me that feels like that’s true.”

Because track meets are few and far between on mainstream television, he is largely out of the public eye. “But you do the sport, not because you want to be famous and not because you want to make lots of money, you really do the sport because you love it,” he said. “As athletes, we have to be reminded of that sometimes.”

In his speech upon receiving the Visa Humanitarian of the Year Award at the Jesse Owens Awards and Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in St. Louis, Clay said his mother had high expectations for him.

“I wasn’t always the smartest kid or the best kid, but my mom used to tell me two things: ‘Bryan, God’s got a plan for your life, he’s got something big in the works for you, and he’s not going to let you screw it up.’ ” he said.“I used to hate it when she would tell me that. I didn’t quite understand what she was talking about.”

His mother also told him he was born a leader. “She said people are going to follow you whether you want them to or not. You have to accept it and understand the responsibility that comes with it. Those were seeds my mom was planting back when I was a kid, before I was even running track.”

Now Clay said he tries very hard to be a good example and a leader, off the track and on — the decathlete who has the most points during the competition wears the word “Leading” on his singlet.

“I think now that I have everything going smoothly and kind of in the right direction,” Clay said. “I understand what my mom was talking about, and I carry that weight on my shoulders every day, knowing that there are going to be kids out there — even if it was just one kid, or just my own kids — they’re going to be watching me. And their relationship with me will have a direct effect on their lives and the lessons that they learn throughout life and how they treat other people.

“I want them to remember my story, and I ultimately want them to make the right decisions — whatever that is for them — and have the strength and the courage to do that and to stay true to themselves and to do the right thing. And I’m hoping that by sharing my story with them, they can.”

His mom isn’t the only one taking pride in his achievements off the track.

“As a long-standing partner of USA Track & Field, Visa is proud to recognize the world’s greatest athlete and Team Visa representative Bryan Clay for his dedication to helping youth,” said Michael Lynch, head of Global Sponsorship Management, Visa Inc. “Bryan continues to inspire both on and off the field, and we’re proud to recognize him as the 2011 Visa Humanitarian of the Year.”

Clay said that in 2008, when he crossed the finish line in the 1,500 meters to win the decathlon, he was able to stand in the middle of the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing and look back on his life.

“I was able to realize that I had no absolutely no regrets,” he said. “There is no greater joy in knowing that you accomplished your dreams, you worked so hard for something like that, but you did it all the right way.”

And Clay wants others to share that feeling.

“I’m just trying to do my part,” he said, “and if I can do my little part, maybe we’ll make the world a little bit better place.”

Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.