Clay can't walk away


POSTED: Tuesday, June 16, 2009

TORONTO » After a 10-month break, Bryan Clay didn't know what to expect when he returned to competitive action last week.

The last time the decathlon star faced his rivals was in Beijing, when he triumphantly left the stadium with an Olympic gold medal hanging around his neck.

Last Thursday, despite only recently getting back to regular training, the Castle High School graduate picked right up where he left off, winning at Toronto's “;Festival of Excellence”; track and field meet in a triathlon consisting of the pole vault, 100-meter hurdles and 400-meter run.

“;For the amount of training that I've done, which hasn't been a whole lot, I put down some decent marks. I tied my personal best in the pole vault, had an awesome hurdle race into a headwind in pouring rain, and didn't have the best 400 race, but it was in the pouring rain, too, so I'm OK with that,”; Clay said after the race, as he lingered on the rainy track long after the competition ended, laughing and smiling as he patiently signed autographs and posed with fans for photos.

In the months following the Olympics, Clay got away from the rigors of more than a decade of almost nonstop training and competing. He spent time in his California home with his wife and two young children, made public speaking appearances and fulfilled commitments to his sponsors. The 29-year-old relished the opportunity of a prolonged break so his sore, tired body could recover. He also felt it was important to refresh mentally, as he felt burnt out after Beijing.

His time away from the sport was so enjoyable that late last year Clay was ready to change his 2009 plans. He would enter no decathlons and just do some moderate training and occasional small events instead.

But then he realized he still had the hunger to compete, though without the all-consuming intensity that comes with striving for an Olympic gold medal. So he found a middle ground. He promised himself that he'd follow through on a full schedule this year, but only if he would allow himself to be more at ease.

“;I think the difference for me this year as opposed to last year is I can have a little more fun competing now,”; he said. “;I don't know how else to explain it. It's kind of like I can go to the track meet and there's not all this pressure to be perfect.”;

With that mind-set, it's now on to the national championships in Oregon June 25-28. If Clay places in the top three in the decathlon — and even with his limited training this year he'll be heavily favored to win — it will be off to Berlin in August for the World Championships.

With a relaxed approach to 2009, Clay insists he has no specific goals for Berlin, other than competing for the joy of it. The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder, who is undersized for his sport and suffers from asthma, won the world title in 2005, but could not defend it in 2007 due to injury. Last year he more than made up for that with his golden performance in Beijing, which was his second Olympic medal, following the silver he won in Athens in 2004.

Clay has only two major career goals left. One is to win a medal at the Olympics in London in 2012, which would make him the first decathlete in history to capture medals at three different Olympic Games. The other is to set a world record. He said that will be his focus in 2010, although the 23-time NAIA All-American at Azusa Pacific, where he still trains, added that “;doesn't mean it's out of the question”; that he'll break the record in Berlin.

“;I'm definitely fit. I'm strong. I feel good. I'm just mentally trying not to focus on anything too hard until next year when it'll be my focus, just like a gold medal was my focus last year.”;

Because of his Olympic championship, Clay is often referred to as “;the world's greatest athlete”; — and he acknowledges that he enjoys the label. But as was demonstrated in Toronto, it seems all the media attention in track and field these days is concentrated solely on the world's fastest man — Jamaican Usain Bolt, who won three gold medals in Beijing while setting world records in the 100- and 200-meter races.

At a press conference last week to promote the high-profile Toronto meet — which featured Clay and several other Olympic stars, including 400-meter gold medalist LaShawn Merritt — Bolt had the spotlight to himself. When Clay was introduced, he received not a single question from the more than 100 accredited media on hand. When other athletes were addressed, like 100-meter Olympic silver medalist Shawn Crawford, they were asked what they think of Bolt. When Bolt emerged as the last athlete to take the stage, Clay and the other Olympians quickly and quietly departed, largely unnoticed, as if they were more little more than warm-up acts for the big star.

While Clay concedes he'd “;love to be in the position”; of being a global megastar like Bolt or swimmer Michael Phelps, and that he “;would do a good job of it,”; he's quick to point out that he's not losing any sleep over it.

“;I've got my gold medal. I've got my memories. My family's taken care of and we're happy. I'm truly, truly happy in my life. I think when this is all said and done, that's really what's most important. If I get wrapped up and I allow the fame and the money and all that to become my identity and define who I am, then when it's all gone, I'm left with nothing.”;