Clay traces success to commitment
|Photo gallery: Bryan Clay|
|Photo gallery: Olympics|
By Dustin Dow
Gannett News Service
By Dustin Dow
BEIJING — Eight summers ago, Bryan Clay sat by himself and assessed his life.
He was a 20-year-old college student whose girlfriend had just dumped him because the reckless behavior that defined his teenage years had followed him to college in California.
She didn't care that Clay was a remarkable athlete with Olympic potential; she cared that he was throwing away that potential by drinking, partying and reveling in immaturity.
"That's when it hit me that I need to make some changes here," Clay said.
That same woman beamed proudly yesterday as she watched Clay, now her husband, answer media questions about his gold medal decathlon performance.
The former Castle High School athlete dominated Olympic competition Thursday and Friday at National Stadium, fulfilling a long-held dream to win the gold medal.
Afterward, Clay, 28, traced his rise as an elite decathlete to that summer of 2000, when life couldn't have seemed worse.
"When I broke up with him, I told him he wasn't the man I wanted," Sarah Clay said yesterday, standing in a pagoda of a 120-year-old Chinese palace while her husband was interviewed nearby.
"But after we broke up," she said, "and I still refused to get back together with him, he went through this complete change. He wasn't the unmotivated, undisciplined guy anymore. Now, he's a gold medal guy."
Few would have mentioned Clay in association with gold medal characteristics when he was in high school and more prone to raising a ruckus than trying to win a woman's trust.
"I got into a lot of fights growing up," Clay said. "I got into trouble for graffiti and there was the drinking and stuff like that when I got a little older. Sometimes you're a young guy having fun and you just don't make good decisions."
Perhaps the smartest thing Clay did during those high school days, though, was to maintain a competitive nature in track and field, fostered by a desire as a young child to become an Olympian.
He was a good enough athlete by the time he graduated high school that he knew he could compete at the college level. So he chose Asuza Pacific University, a Christian school near Los Angeles that 2000 Olympic decathlon bronze medalist Chris Huffins had attended. Clay had met Huffins at a track clinic as a high school sophomore, and Huffins persuaded him to go train under coach Kevin Reid.
That's where Clay met Sarah in their freshman year. She was a javelin thrower on the track team.
"I thought she was a good girl," Clay said. "I thought she was a nice person. I remember telling my friends freshman year that's probably a girl I could marry, somebody like her."
Soon they were dating and Clay was gaining renown on the track — and the party circuit. He was a popular sports figure who thought his athletic skills allowed him to break whatever social rules he wanted. Eventually, Sarah had enough.
"By the time I realized she was going to break up with me," Clay said, "it was too late. She said, 'Hey, this is over.' It kind of crushed my world."
The break in the relationship lasted through the summer of 2000, longer than Clay anticipated. But it presented him an opportunity to reprioritize his life.
"I asked myself, if I was to die tomorrow, what would people say about me," Clay said. "I ended up coming to the conclusion that people would say, 'Oh Bryan, he's a really good athlete.' And that was the only thing I could think of."
That wasn't good enough for Sarah, which meant it wasn't good enough for Clay. So he turned to some spiritual advisers at Asuza who helped him stabilize his personal life and restart on more mature terms with Sarah.
They married in January 2004, several months before Clay won the silver medal in Athens. Even back then, winning gold in Beijing had been his primary focus, so to come within one step of an Olympic gold medal in 2004 was an exciting harbinger.
But it didn't prepare Clay for the satisfaction he would feel Saturday, the day after winning his gold medal, when even the physical pain of the previous two days couldn't shake his happiness.
"It really was a sigh of relief to see this through," he said. "We had all these things going on in life, and it wasn't perfect, but we kept our head on as straight as we possibly could and accomplished something I've been working for since I was eight years old. It was a long, long road."