track and field
Castle alumnus Bryan Clay won the decathlon at the U.S. Olympic trials on Monday.
Awa’s teachings shaped Clay
AZUSA, Calif. » The sixth-grade teacher knew that young Bryan Clay, arrogant and defiant but plenty talented, could go places in life. The question was where.
"He was a handful, a rascal," recalls Colin Awa of the boy he struggled with in physical education class some 15 years ago in Hawaii. "I knew he was stubborn, mentally strong, had that drive, but it could have gone either way.
"He could have been a good criminal, too."
Clay, of course, took another path. The Castle High graduate is deeply religious, devoted to his wife and their two young children - and happens also to be one of the world's greatest athletes, among the favorites to win the decathlon at the Beijing Olympics.
The silver medalist in the 2004 Olympics credits his teacher with prodding him onto a positive path. Awa cajoled Clay, held him back from field trips, enlisted the help of his mother, Michele Vandenberg. It took the specter of failure to make a lasting impression.
"He gave me an 'F,' and it rocked my world," says Clay. "I wonder if he knows how big a deal that was for me."
The drive and stubbornness Castle High graduate Bryan Clay showed as a sixth-grader played a significant role in his success in the decathlon and spot on the Olympic team.
No, Awa says - not until now. The two haven't kept in touch after Clay finished school at Benjamin Parker Elementary and moved on to King Intermediate, and Awa not only didn't realize how he had influenced Clay, he thought Clay might harbor bitterness.
"I'm surprised," Awa says. "We had wars."
The drive and stubbornness that Clay showed even back then played a significant role in his success in the decathlon, a grueling two-day, 10-event competition of running, jumping and throwing that harkens back to ancient Greece.
"The only way I can explain to people is that it's mentally, physically, spiritually draining on a daily basis," he says. "People go out and play basketball for fun, play golf for fun, jog a few miles for fun, but not a whole lot of people go out and do a decathlon for fun."
Clay sealed his second Olympics on Monday by winning the U.S. trials with the best decathlon score by an American in 16 years, and the best in the world in four years.
Historically, Americans have dominated the event, winning 11 of the 21 Olympic golds, beginning with Jim Thorpe in 1912. Only one, however, has come since Bruce Jenner won in 1976 - the 1996 win of Dan O'Brien, who four years earlier was part of Reebok's failed "Dan & Dave" hoopla before the Barcelona Games.
Clay's total of 8,820 points at the 2004 Athens Games was the fourth highest total in Olympic history (it was his personal best until the 8,832 points he scored at the trials in Eugene, Ore.). Unfortunately for Clay, Czech great Roman Sebrle set an Olympic record with 8,893 points.
"Everything leading up to the silver medal was the dream, the kind of out-of-body experience," Clay says. "To be in the stadium with 75,000 people cheering and seeing the U.S. flags raised throughout the stadium; I actually start crying when I got to the long jump because I was so overwhelmed by where I was and what was going on around me."
He got down on his knees and prayed, to "thank God for letting me be where I was."
The following year, Clay won the world championships. Hampered by injury last year, this spring he won the heptathlon at the world indoor championships.
Clay has been spending 6- to 8-hour days in the weight room and on the track at Azusa Pacific University, his alma mater in the suburbs east of Los Angeles.
Supervising his workouts is Kevin Reid, Azusa Pacific's head track coach who also helped coach former Olympic decathlete Dave Johnson (the other half of the shoe campaign's ill-fated duo) at the Christian university.
Reid says most decathletes have something in common - they always believe they can beat you at anything.
"They would say, 'I don't care that you're a basketball player; I'm a better athlete than you and that will overcome what I lack in basketball skills,"' Reid explains. "That's just a confidence and a mind-set that they have."
Clay uses that determination to make up for his stature - at 5-feet-11 and 185 pounds, he is undersized for the sport.
"I guess you could say I'm the smallest decathlete; everybody's taller than me," he says. "There are some things that they get a certain advantage with the height, but I think it all equals out."
The first decathlon event, the 100 meters, is among his strongest, and the last, the 1,500 meters, perhaps his weakest. So he might have to build a substantial lead heading into the decathlon finale if he is to win Olympic gold.
Clay says he enjoys his sport - mostly - because he loves it.
"But no matter how much you love it, how much fun you have doing it, you end up questioning yourself," Clay says. "Do I really want to put my body through this today? Do I really want to hurt this bad? There's a lot of mental battling that goes on inside you."
He's been battling since those days with Awa.
It's not like Clay was unwilling to try - at least when it came to the physical part of P.E.
He had always aced the class because it had been strictly about athletics. Then came Awa, who required written reports and tests on sports. Clay wouldn't play ball - he thought his physical gifts would carry him.
Even though he slapped Clay with an "F," Awa didn't give up on him, Clay recalls. The message was constant: You can't get by just on athletic ability, you have to be responsible in other areas of life.
"Those are the type of people that, when you start to get way too off track, they're able to grab your hand and pull you back into life and reality," Clay says. "It just taught me life lessons and made me who I am today."
He smiles and adds, "I still got in trouble, a lot of trouble. It took maybe a couple more years for me to really get it."
Awa's "rascal" is now 28 and a success by any measure.
"I give him so much credit," Awa says. "He's become the young man I knew he had the potential to be."