Olympic Hero

Gold medalist Bryan Clay basks in the spotlight of athletic fame

* Clothing Courtesy Neiman Marcus

He’s got two Olympic medals. His face is plastered on Wheaties boxes. He’s considered the world’s greatest athlete.

He’s been on Late Night with David Letterman. He spoke at the National Republican Convention. He’s even rung the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

And yet Bryan Clay, the 28-year-old decathlete from Kaneohe who convincingly took home the gold at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing this summer and became the first American man since 1996 to win the 10-discpline event, isn’t satisfied.

He wants to win another medal at the Summer Games in London and become the first decathlete ever to win three medals in consecutive Olympics.

He wants to grow his foundation, which provides academic and athletic opportunities to underprivileged kids in Hawaii.

And he’d like to move out of the modest three-bedroom, two-bath home in Glendora, Calif., that he and wife, Sarah, bought four months after the Summer Games in Athens, when Clay took home the silver medal. Not because he wants a bigger, better home for his family, which includes 3-year-old Jacob and 17-month-old Kate. (He actually loves the neighborhood.) But because strangers are now banging on his door, asking for autographs.

After all, how many world-class Olympians live down the street?

And how many of them are as friendly and accessible as Bryan Clay?

“Bryan’s appeal is a breath of fresh air – an individual who is just like you and me,” says agent Stephen Bienko of Doyle Management Group. “He has a family that he takes care of and makes his No. 1 priority, he gets up every morning and works hard for what he wants, and he loves his God. The only difference between Bryan and the rest of us is that he has been gifted with some of the most incredible athletic skills this world has ever seen.”

Athletic icon

The Castle High grad became a household name after the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, where he overcame a thigh injury, racked up 8,820 points – fourth-best in Olympic history – and earned the silver medal.

Clay commemorated the accomplishment – he wasn’t favored to medal – by getting a tattoo of the Olympic rings and an olive leaf on his upper back.

From there, his career took off like a hurling javelin. He established the Bryan Clay Foundation, hosted track-and-field clinics and entertained endorsement deals from companies eager to capitalize on his multi-cultural appeal.

He followed his silver performance in Athens with a gold medal at the 2005 World Outdoor Championships in Helsinki, Finland and the No. 1 world ranking in 2006.

But nothing – not world records in international events, not world rankings – can compare to winning the prestigious gold medal, the one he keeps in a purple microfiber sunglasses bag.

“I don’t think (winning the gold medal) has changed me,” Clay says at a recent photo shoot in Kakaako. “I’m stopped a lot more often, and more people stare at me. But there’s not a whole lot I can do about that. I just gotta deal with it.”

Earning the gold has done more than just make Clay an overnight celebrity.

Bienko, who has been representing Clay since before his Olympic debut in 2004, estimates his client could earn $20 million over the course of his lifetime, thanks to his performance in Beijing.

“I believe the Bryan Clay brand is something that our track and field community has never seen,” Bienko says. “Track and field has a great wealth of incredible athletes and people; nevertheless Bryan brings something very special to the table when our country is at an incredible turning period in our history. Legacies are built by great accomplishments at the right time. With dedication and hard work, sometimes you get lucky – and in the case of Bryan, I think both things happened. It could not have happened to a better person.”

Getting On Track

When Clay was 8 years old, he was sitting in the living room watching the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. He was mesmerized by track and field star Carl Lewis, who took gold in the 100-meter sprint, grabbed the American flag and ran around the track.

Clay turned to his mom and says, “I’m going to the Olympics.”

“I don’t think she took me real seriously,” he says. “I didn’t take myself seriously. It was just a little kid thing. But God brought me back to that later in life.”

But first, Clay had a lot of growing to do.

His parents divorced when he was in the fifth grade. His mom later remarried; his dad moved to Florida.

Clay didn’t take the divorce well and acted out his anger and frustration in the form of aggression and destructive behavior, from cutting class to scribbling graffiti on walls.

“I definitely wasn’t a good kid,” he says, shaking his head.

But what got him into the most trouble – and kept him from participating in sports – was the fighting.

He had been suspended a few times for his role in school brawls, once on the first day back from a suspension. His mom took Clay out of King Intermediate and placed him in Jarrett Middle School. That didn’t help either.

“There was so much going on in my life, it was difficult for a kid to process,” Clay says. “And the only way I think I knew how to express it was anger. If I got sad, I was angry. If I was disappointed, it turned to anger. I didn’t really know how to process anything else.”

When Clay was in sixth grade, his mom let him chose between two non-combative sports – running track or swimming.

“I didn’t want to wear Speedos,” Clay says, laughing, “so I chose track.”

He took to track and field instantly. “It’s a very competitive sport, and everybody sees the results,” he says. “If I win, it’s because I won, not because someone else helped me.”

Track had tapped into Clay’s fiercely competitive nature. When he got to the starting block, he was going to run faster than anyone else. He wasn’t satisfied with anything less than first place. He had to be the best.

That determination to win fueled his drive to compete on an international level. He has battled asthma, endured foot and thigh injuries and overcome his relatively small size for a decathlete – 5-foot-10, 174 pounds – to be the world’s greatest athlete.

“We live in a world that tells us it’s not good to be competitive, that we don’t have to be the best,” he says. “But competitiveness can be a good thing.”

Shaping Clay

At first, though, Clay struggled. He wasn’t as fast as the other runners, finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack at track meets. But he was determined to get better. He wasn’t OK with being mediocre.

After about two years, Clay started winning meets. By the time he was attending Castle High, he was competing in as many as six events.

It was during his sophomore year, though, that Clay’s childhood Olympics dream seemed possible, even for a kid living in Kaneohe.

Decathlete Chris Huffins, who earned the bronze medal in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, held a track clinic at Castle. He convinced Clay to consider the decathlon and later introduced him to the coach at Azusa Pacific University.

Clay attended the small Christian university located 26 miles northeast of Los Angeles. He honed his skills, even excelling in the sport’s throwing events despite his size.

During his first year on the team, Clay met Sarah Smith, a self-assured sophomore who had signed up to throw the javelin mostly to spend time with her track friends. Unlike Clay, she had no plans of competing at the international level.

“I knew from the first time I saw her that she was the one,” Clay says, matter-of-factly. “I told my friend, ‘That’s the kind of girl I’d end up marrying.’ I was pretty sure.”

Sarah, who didn’t think Clay was serious enough to settle down yet, wasn’t convinced the relationship was going to work. After dating for about a year, she broke up with him. Clay went soul-searching.

“He was funny, goofy and confident. We had a lot of fun,” she says. “And I realize there was more to him than that, but he wasn’t there yet.”

After about a year, the two reunited. This time Clay was focused, his priorities were in order, and his athletic career was about to take off.

In 2000 Clay won the national decathlon title. The following year he earned the national title in the long jump. In 2002 he was named outstanding performer at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Outdoor Championships after winning both the pentathlon and the long jump. As a senior, he led the Cougars to national indoor and outdoor championships, graduating with a degree in social work and the title of 23-time NAIA All-American.

That’s when the qualifying for the Olympics wasn’t just a possibility, it was the next step.

“I remember thinking, ‘OK, this is different,'” Sarah says. “I realized the Olympics was more of a reality.”

Golden Moment

The decathlon comprises 10 track-and-field events – from pole-vaulting to the 100-meter dash – making it one of the most physically grueling Olympic sports. Not only do athletes need to master a wide range of skills, but they compete for two 11-hour days.

And anything can happen.

Case in point: Coming off his unexpected silver-medal win in Athens, Clay went into the 2005 World Championships in Osaka as the reigning decathlon champion and favorite to win.

But when he went to plant his foot for the second attempt in the high jump, he heard a pop and fell to the mat. He limped off the track and tried to ease the pain to his right quadriceps with ice, massage and even acupuncture. Nothing worked. Clay had to withdraw from competition.

“He was going great, and he took one jump and that was it,” Sarah says. “You just never know.”

That ran through Clay’s mind in Beijing National Stadium after taking a convincing and comfortable lead on the first day of competition. He got to bed at 1 a.m. and woke up four hours later to start the second and final day of events.

But the athletes had to endure challenging conditions, including pelting rain during the 100-meter dash, which Clay posted the best time at 10.44 seconds.

The second day was even worse, with a torrential downpour in the morning that quickly turned the Bird’s Nest into a sauna.

By the last event – the 1,500-meter race – Clay had racked up enough points to secure the gold. But, as his experience in Osaka proved, anything could happen.

Clay crossed the finish line dead last – and dead tired – in 5:06.59 with nearly a half-minute of cushion. He fell to the track in Lane 2 and rolled on his back in exhaustion.

He had won the gold. “That’s not exactly how I planned it out,” Clay told reporters about his performance in the final event. “This was the hardest decathlon of my life.”

Clay’s wife, mom, stepdad, brother, grandparents, high school track coach and a few other family members witnessed his gold-medal performance from the stands. (His two kids were in Seattle with his in-laws.)

Sarah’s only regret was not soaking in the moment of watching her husband on the medal stand.

“I wish I could redo it,” she says, laughing. “I was busy with a video camera in one hand and another camera in the other. I was trying to capture the moment and I didn’t stop to take it in. When I watched it at home, I started crying.”

Family and the Future

Jacob doesn’t understand yet the full extent of what his dad has accomplished, that he’s the world’s greatest athlete. Because, as far as this 3-year-old is concerned, Michael Phelps is the world’s greatest.

“He tries to swim like him,” Sarah says, smiling. “He has no fear of the water.”

Clay’s OK with that. He doesn’t need his son to idolize him on an athletic level. Fatherhood comes first, and he’d rather be the best dad to his son than the best athlete.

“Having two kids really changes you,” he said.

At a recent photo shoot, Clay was more daddy than decathlete. He held a tissue to the sniffling nose of his daughter – who’s called either Miss Kate or Munchkin – and instructed her to blow, blow harder. And in between changing from a Canali suit to Rock & Republic jeans – he’s making sure Jacob is behaving in the green room and Kate isn’t eating chalk.

“I knew he was going to be a good dad,” Sarah says. “He’s really good with kids, so I wasn’t surprised.”

When the couple does have any down time, they like to spend it on the couch in their living room watching American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

In fact, Sarah would love nothing more than for her gold medalist husband to follow in the quick-steps of other Olympians – Apollo Ohno and Misty May Treanor – who have danced on the popular ABC reality show.

“That’s the plan,” she says excitedly.

Clay isn’t ruling it out, either. He’s not ruling anything out.

After the 2012 Olympics in London, where he hopes to become the first decathlete in history to win three medals in consecutive Games, he’s not sure what he’s going to do. Maybe coach. Maybe expand his foundation’s efforts. Maybe relax a little and be a dad for awhile.

Of course, he won’t slack at it. “I have no idea what I’m going to do (after the next Olympics),” he says. “I’m open to anything.”

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