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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, August 1, 2004

Family, friends have been Clay's foundation

Bryan Clay tied for first in the decathlon's 110 hurdles at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Sacramento on his way to gaining a spot in the Athens Games. It was track and field that helped him overcome a difficult childhood.

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By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

Born to a multi-cultural couple and touched deeply by divorce, Bryan Clay was a "kolohe" kid wandering through childhood. Ultimately, he found faith and an extended family to guide him.

Clay's trophies and awards adorn the home of Mike and Michele Vandenberg. Michele is Bryan's mother and Mike is his stepfather.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

His is not an unusual story in Hawai'i — with one glaring exception. Clay could be the "world's greatest athlete" by the time this month's Olympics end. It has cast his life story in a brilliant light.

The day he won the decathlon championship in the U.S. Olympic Trials three weeks ago at Sacramento, the light took on a magical form.

"I was just so happy that day," says Michele Vandenberg, Clay's mother. "I just couldn't believe that everything we had prayed for and worked for so long was coming to pass.

"To watch him knock those points out event after event ... I thought, 'It's a miracle, it's God.' It was great. There was even this halo in the sky when it was over, a perfect ring. It was either a halo or a gold medal."

Hawai'i's "greatest" hope for an individual medal at these Games, scheduled Aug. 13 to 29, can tell you he came from a background quite different from the "Leave it to Beaver" upbringing he kids wife Sarah about.

His Japanese mother, a 1971 Farrington High graduate, and black father, Greg, were college classmates in Austin who successfully overcame Texas' imposing inter-racial barriers.

Bryan was born there in 1980 and moved to Hawai'i at age 5. About five years later, his parents divorced. In 1991, Michele married Mike Vandenberg.

Bryan reacted — and behaved — badly to the divorce and his new dad. One day Michele was called to Benjamin Parker Elementary because her oldest son had knocked out another boy. Teachers complained about his attitude. His grades were nosediving.

"I wasn't your average kid being mischievous," Clay admits. "I was blatantly doing things to get in trouble and see if I could get away with it. I made life hard for my parents and brother (Nick)."

A counselor told Michele to get Bryan into sports as a way to control his anger and feed his natural competitiveness.

Running from trouble

6 months

4 years old

8 years old

15 years old


Hometown: Kane'ohe

Hawai'i connection: Castle High '98

College: Azusa Pacific '03 (social work)

Wife: Sarah (February '04)

Date of birth: 1/3/80

Sport: Track and

Field Event:

Decathlon Height: 5-11

Weight: 174

Previous Olympics: First
One fateful day at a Kapaolono Park summer fun program, a director told Michele that Bryan had started running around the field.

"We realized," Michele recalls, "that as long as he kept running, he would stay out of trouble.

"He was not that big. Bryan was really, really thin all through high school. There was no muscle tone or anything, but the fact that he was really strong-willed made the difference."

She found him a place with Duncan Macdonald's track club in Kailua "to keep him busy and out of trouble." Bryan took to track and field so quickly — to say nothing of powerfully and tenaciously — he had trouble picking an event.

He started watching track on TV. The skinny kid started blowing by others on the track and throwing and jumping by them in the field. He would fill out formidably but still, at 5 feet 11 and 174 pounds, will probably be the smallest decathlete in the Summer Games.

Kailua Track Club would be the first of many stops on the way to Athens where Clay found devoted advisors. Michele believes the trail of selfless help he received has "God's fingerprints" all over it.

A Decathlete is born

At Castle High School, there was coach Martin Hee. In a quirk of fate, Hee was that rare track and field breed — a devoted decathlete, who even remembered his first decathlon at age 31, and how sore he was the day after.

Hee instantly saw Clay's speedy foundation and nudged him into the 10-sport discipline by having him compete in up to six events at meets, figuring it would also enhance scholarship chances.

"The thing is, he never saw a track meet — he was always in an event," Hee recalls, laughing. "He never sat in the bleachers to watch. We made it where if he was not running, he was in a field event."

Everyone saw something special. When Clay competed at Punahou, those coaches volunteered insight into sprinting and jumping, as did other coaches and even strangers along the way.

At a Maui clinic, he met current Cal coach Chris Huffins, bronze medalist in the 2000 decathlon.

Huffins gave Clay a pair of his worn-out Mizuno shoes, nudged him toward the decathlon a bit more, and introduced him to Azusa Pacific University's Kevin Reid, his current coach. Clay was thrilled with the shoes, but still having trouble taking school and life seriously.

Dream becomes a goal

"About that time I told him he had to make a decision if this was a dream or a goal," Michele says. "When a dream reaches a point where it's not just fun you have to make a decision. Anybody can dream, but a goal is something you are determined to reach.

"When I look at his life, he's had many challenges. The biggest challenge was to really bring this out in himself and know himself. There is still a ways to go. Now there are more challenges. But because of his faith, he'll get through it."

Bryan Clay is hoping to add Olympic gold to his collection of track and field ribbons and medals.

Courtesy Michele Vandenberg

Reid coached 1992 bronze medalist Dave Johnson of "Dan (O'Brien) and Dave" fame. He still trains Clay a year after his graduation from Azusa, along with a support staff of Mike Barnett, Rana Reider and Kalan Cavasoz.

All are volunteers. Barnett is the women's head coach at Azusa, and concentrates on throws. Reider is an assistant at Kansas State, and focuses on running, jumping and technical work. Cavasoz is an APU trainer dedicated to Clay in his time off.

Cavasoz, a Mililani graduate who played volleyball at the University of Hawai'i, is also a frequent lunch companion of Clay's at the new L&L Hawaiian Barbecue — Mainland offshoot of L&L Drive-Inn — in Azusa, Calif. Nick Clay, a sophomore pre-law student at APU, works at L&L.

Azusa Pacific's devotion to the Clay cause has been steadfast. He was drawn to the small NAIA school because of Reid and his parents' preference for a Christian education. Once he visited the campus, where "God First" is the motto, he was hooked for life.

"People here know me and ask how I'm doing, how I am spiritually," Clay says. "They genuinely want to know how my life is going. It plays a huge part in who I am and how I've gotten here."

Strength from family

Nick Clay, left, and Bryan are best friends as well as brothers. "He's one of the most important people in the world to me," Bryan says. "I love him to death"

Courtesy Michele Vandenberg


World Record: Roman Sebrle (CZE) 9,026 (2001)

American record: Dan O'Brien 8,891 (1992)

Olympic Record: Daley Thompson (GBR) 8,847 (1984)
But Clay's family is his foundation. These are the best of times for the Clay/Vandenbergs. Forgiveness, faith and love have healed old wounds. Again, it has not been a sit-com solution.

Bryan's mother and wife are his most passionate fans, and brother Nick his best friend. Michele sees husband Mike as the person who ultimately brought her family back together. The two fathers were part of the ecstatic group of 40-plus that screamed into the Sacramento nights as Bryan became a gold-medal contender.

When Bryan graduated from Castle, it was Mike who contacted Greg Clay in Florida and asked if the family could "put everything aside" because he did not want Greg to miss any part of the boys' bright future.

"He raised Bryan and Nick," Michele says of Mike. "They call him dad and call their biological father daddy. ... We had adjustment periods, but we never gave up. Mike continued to tell them he was not here to take the place of their father. He always kept in touch with Greg.

"After Bryan's graduation, Greg came around more and there was this great healing. I can only attribute that healing to Mike."

Nick has also been an integral part of Bryan's success, and life. Both remember late nights in Hawai'i talking about how much they missed their "daddy." They share much more than a love of computer games and katsu.

"I love him to death," Bryan says. "He's one of the most important people in the world to me. Now he's my neighbor and he comes over and watches TV and eats all our food and has us pay for his dinners. I enjoy doing it. I wouldn't do it for anyone else, but for him I'll do it until I'm broke."

Nick is just as devoted. "A lot of people think we can't get any closer," he says. "I feel like when he succeeds, I succeed. He's my brother, and I love seeing him happy. I've always been with him, hoping and praying he'd make the Olympics. Now it's here and it makes me so happy."

Winning over Sarah

Bryan Clay said his wife, Sarah, "had to become part of my training and career, and who I am in my dreams." She once told him he wasn't "the kind of man she wanted to marry," but changed her mind.

Courtesy Michele Vandenberg


100 meters: 10.39
Long jump: 26-5
Shot put: 50-1 3/4
High jump: 6-9 1/2
400 meters: 47.85
110-meter hurdles: 13.80
Discus: 170-11
Pole vault: 16-8fl
Javelin: 224-3
1,500 meters: 4:38.93
Points (Year): 8,660 (2004)

Career highlights
• Won U.S. Outdoor Championship at Olympic Trials in July with personal-best 8,660 points, ranking him third in the world

• 2004 World Indoors (heptathlon) silver medalist, where his 6,365 points made him No. 2 American all-time

• 2002 and 2003 U.S. Outdoor Championship silver medalist, third in 2001

• 23-time NAIA All-American, winning NAIA championships in decathlon, pentathlon and long jump (twice)

• As Castle senior in 1998, won four golds and broke three meet records in state high school track and field championships, taking third in the team championship by himself.
Nick also believes Bryan would not be where he is without Sarah, who came into his life while he was still coming to grips with his spirituality and adulthood as an Azusa Pacific freshman.

Clay's family is strong in its faith and many church friends helped Bryan when he lost his way growing up. But he couldn't match Sarah's commitment early in their relationship. It nearly drove them apart.

Sarah vividly remembers accepting Christ at age 3, while playing with her brother at home in Seattle. Their parents witnessed her revelation. The entire family celebrated.

"It was amazing," Sarah recalls. She's followed her faith since and "added immensely" to her husband's spirituality, according to Bryan.

Not surprisingly, they met on the track. She was a "not very good" javelin thrower whose "walk with God" was ultimately what hooked Clay. When he started to sincerely walk hand-in-hand with her, they knew it was serious.

"He remembers the first time we met, but I don't," Sarah says. "Apparently I caught his eye. We became friends on the track. When he was a freshman he was a big flirt. That's how he got to know me, then he started asking me out. He's a charmer. He knows how to charm the ladies and I got sucked in."

But before they left APU for the summer, Sarah told Bryan he was "not the kind of man she wanted to marry." She went home and prayed about their relationship.

About the same time, Bryan called his parents, asked them to get on the phone together and told him he was "sorry for all the things I put you through ... I wanted to let you know you are wonderful parents."

All three started crying.

Michele calls that a turning point in their lives. Bryan came back to Hawai'i with blond hair and a pierced ear, but by the next summer, according to Nick, he "was an adult" and had won Sarah back.

She supports him now as a kindergarten teacher, along with a few sponsors. While he trained last year, she earned her master's. While he dreamed of Athens, she dreamed with him. Bryan says Sarah puts balance in his life.

"She's had to become part of my training and career and who I am in my dreams," he says. "She's had to make my dreams her dreams. It's the only way I think it can work. Otherwise she would end up leaving the situation bitter and upset and she wouldn't be able to support me. She is definitely into it. She makes a lot of it possible."

Clay, at this remarkable time in his life, is liberally sharing his success with everyone his mother saw as touched by "God's fingerprints." On his Web site (bryanclay.com) is a simple statement that defines the Hawai'i man who has finally, fully found paradise.

"When I do become an Olympian it will not be a testimony of my greatness or superiority," Clay wrote, "but rather a testimony of the blood, sweat and tears my family and friends have sacrificed to get me where I am."

Reach Ann Miller at amiller@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8043.

• • •

Help send Clay's team to Athens olympics

Supporters of Bryan Clay are trying to raise $20,000 to help pay for Clay's four-man support staff to go with him to Athens. Clay's coach is Kevin Reid, who is assisted by Mike Barnett, Rana Reider and Hawai'i's Kalan Cavasoz, a trainer who played volleyball for the University of Hawai'i in 1993.

Azusa Pacific University has agreed to serve as the funding agent so donations are tax deductible.

Checks should be made out to "Azusa Pacific Summer Olympics Fund." They can be mailed to Azusa Pacific University, 901 East Route 66, Azusa, CA 91702, Attn: Kevin Reid.