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Bryan Clay Fought Internal Battle to Stay in the Game In ‘Trial by Fire’

Glendora’s Olympic champion tells how he almost decided to quit at the Oregon Olympic Trials.

Bryan Clay’s toughest moment in the Olympic Trials decathlon wasn’t the last lap of the 1,500 meters or the stumble in the 110-meter hurdles where he was initially disqualified. 

It was debating—in the wake of that shock—whether to chuck it all and “bury your head somewhere.”

“I was standing on the side crying—it hurt so much,” said Clay, the Glendora resident and Olympic decathlon champion of 2008 and silver medalist in 2004.

But when his young children said, “C’mon, Dad!” and his coaches reminded him of his role-model status—and opportunity to inspire—he said his competitive side prevailed in an “internal battle” over whether to quit.

“It’s such a big blow to have it go bad. To have one event just take it all away,” he said, referring to the hurdles.

He spoke with honesty and conflicted feelings in the media tent Saturday after taking 12th behind the 9,039-point world record of Oregon favorite Ashton Eaton. 

“You’re trying to muster as much as you got, but at the same time you hurt inside,” he said of the minutes between the hurdles and the discus throw—where he fouled all of his throws. 

Although he won an appeal of the hurdles disqualification—and was awarded 644 points for his 16.81-second walk-across-the-line effort—he netted zero points in the discus.

In “the moment,” he said, “you just want to walk away. It’s just the worst feeling ever. You know, it just sucks.”

But while being interviewed by 1996 Olympic decathlon champion Dan O’Brien—who famously lost at the 1992 Olympic Trials when he failed to clear his opening height in the pole vault—Clay assured that he wasn’t done.

“By no means is this the end” of his decathlon career, he said. “As soon as you cross the finish line in the [1500], you think to yourself: I can do it again.”

In fact, Saturday afternoon his coaches were trying to figure out whether Clay could find a decathlon to enter before the July 8 deadline and become the third U.S. entrant at the London Games. 

If Clay can score the “A” qualifying standard of 8200 points in the next two weeks, he’ll be on the team. (He scored 7,092 in Eugene, and has a best of 8,832—set at the 2008 Olympic Trials. The third-place finisher Saturday in Eugene—Gray Horn—scored 7954 points.)

For his part, Clay wasn’t too sure about that prospect, calling himself “pretty beat up” physically, not to mention emotionally.

But he described in detail the sacrifices he’s endured for a chance at a third Olympic team—including having to find a new sponsor after his 8-year contract with Nike ended last year. And forgoing family fun.

“You train every single day … six to seven hours a day,” he said. “I don’t even go into the hot tub with my [three] kids” for fear of his legs feeling flat at workout the next day.

“I can’t wrestle with my kids” for fear of hurting himself.  “Everything you do gets put into this [Olympic quest]. And to have it all slip away through your fingertips.”

Clay isn’t sure what caused him to hit the ninth hurdle Saturday while racing Eaton and 2009/2011 world champion Trey Hardee. But his lead foot struck the barrier and put him into a stumble that led to his pushing over the final barrier with his hands—triggering USATF official Donald Berry to raise a yellow flag for an initial disqualification.

“It happened so quick,” Clay said of Day 2’s first event about 9:40 a.m. Saturday.  “I really didn’t think anything of it [at first]. And then after the race, I kind of thought: Oh, crap!  I’m going to be disqualified.”

About five minutes after fouling three time in the discus, he said he was told his hurdle points had been reinstated on appeal. 

But the damage was done.

“Everything was there,” he said of his ability to make the team. “I ran 10.45 [in the opening event, the 100-meter dash]. I did everything I was supposed to do. … I had two bad events … two out of 10—80 percent. It’s still a ‘B.’”

One reporter wanted to know if Clay thought the selection rules for the U.S. Olympic track team should be changed. [Some countries pick members on the basis of recent marks and fitness.]

Clay said he understood the premise, given O’Brien’s own failure to make the 1992 team despite a Reebok campaign [Dan vs. Dave] that collapsed.

“Would I like to be going to the Games? Yeah. But at the same time, the rules are the rules,” Clay said. “That’s why I think we send such amazing teams to the Games. We have some of the toughest circumstances to compete under.

“It’s really a trial by fire.”

O’Brien asked Clay, 32, whether he thought this was his last decathlon. 

Clay said the thought occurred, but wouldn’t call it quits even this summer. He plans some European meets.

But after writing a book—called Redemption—and watching youngsters like Ashton Eaton rise to prominence, he’s begun thinking about his legacy—and career future.

He told of a conversation with Eaton, 24, whom Clay called “phenomenal.” The veteran told the rookie about “the natural progression of the event. You got guys who are always coming up behind you.”

Although dismayed by his own outcome, he said he was a fan of the decathlon and to be a part of Eaton’s world record “is huge.”

“Few guys can say they’ve competed against two world record holders at their peak,” Clay said, referring also to the Czech Republic’s Roman Sebrle, whose world record of 9,026 points in 2001 Eaton broke at Hayward Field.

Looking ahead, Clay said he’s been exploring careers in broadcasting, and “I know people have been asking if I want to get into politics.” He mentioned USA Track & Field—his sport’s governing body—as an interest.

Most of all, he wants to help advance the decathlon and his sport.

“I’d love to be a role model for these guys,” he said. “I’d love to be a mentor. I’ve already told [people] that I can’t wait till the day I get to coach.

“I cannot wait to run these kids into the ground and watch them hurt.”

Nadine O'Connor June 24, 2012 at 04:21 PM
Great article, Ken. Thanks for your good work.

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