By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
EUGENE, Ore., June 30 -- Gripping a paper cup of coffee and shouldering a backpack, decathlete Bryan Clay trudged through the gates of Hayward Field shortly before 10 a.m. on Monday, nine hours before the stadium would fill with fans. Clay made his way to a practice track, ditched the cup and tugged on a baseball cap. Minutes later, he began shuffling around the grass infield to loosen his sore legs, his gait befitting an octogenarian, not the world indoor decathlon champion.
At that moment, as the morning chill still hung in the air and workers scurried about to prepare for another onslaught of fans on the fourth day of the U.S. Olympic trials in track and field, Clay stood halfway to his goal of making a second Olympic team. But halfway didn't mean close. Clay knew what 10 events over two days could do to a person, even the top-ranked decathlete in the world -- which Clay was in 2005-06.
Over the next 11 hours, he would try to take care of his body while exerting it beyond all common sense, expending an estimated 8,000 calories and losing perhaps 15 pounds as he ran hurdles, threw a discus, vaulted over a pole, heaved a javelin and ran four times around the track. By late Monday, Clay had won his third U.S. title and set an Olympic trials record in the process.
In a jammed stadium, he chugged the last 200 meters of the final event, the 1,500, with his eyes nearly closed, a pained grimace on his face and his head bobbing. He didn't finish even in the top eight, but he had beaten the day's myriad challenges, securing his Olympic spot with an 8,832-point performance. Trey Hardee finished second with 8,534; Tom Pappas was third with 8,511.
Clay expected, however, to celebrate later not with a flute filled with champagne but a bath loaded with ice.
"It's mentally, emotionally and spiritually draining," Clay said. "There's no other way to describe how you feel at the end of the decathlon. It tests every aspect of your being. You hope you get through it well. Sometimes you don't."
After the 2004 Games in Athens, at which Clay won the silver medal, he lumbered to catch a taxi just past midnight after the first day, as one of his coaches raced to keep up because he was holding Clay's IV bag. A less amusing recollection: Clay dropped out of his most important events of 2007, the U.S. and world championships, because of injuries that surfaced during the competitions.
"It's the definition of grueling," said former collegiate decathlete Paul Doyle, Clay's assistant coach and full-time manager.
Sunday's performance left Clay feeling edgy and disappointed, not the best state as he tried to ensure he remained in the top three Monday, guaranteeing an Olympic slot. He had taken the lead after five events, but struggled throughout the day, especially during the high jump, when one of his four coaches yelled from the sideline: "Stop messing around! Bryan, you are a world champion! You are an Olympic silver medalist! You're above this! You've got to get this started!"
Moments after Sunday's final event, the 400, Clay's longtime coach Kevin Reid more calmly dissected the performance.
"Today," he said, "we competed on eggshells."
Monday, Reid speculated, would be better. Clay's wife, Sarah, dropped the couple's two toddlers off with a babysitter so she could take in the action. She wore a cotton T-shirt proclaiming herself a Bryan Clay supporter, but looked nothing like the carefree fans that assembled outside the stadium, eating ice cream bars and sipping plastic cups filled with beer and soda. Her husband had already filmed two Olympic commercials with International Olympic Committee sponsor Johnson & Johnson, but they rarely talked about the Beijing Games. She hadn't made a single plan for the trip.
Had to get through this weekend first.
"It's nerve-wracking," she said. "The night before, the week before, the morning of, are pretty bad. We do a lot of praying."
As the defending world champion, Clay received a bye into last year's world championships despite his failure to finish the U.S. meet. Healthy when he arrived in Osaka, Japan, he made a misstep on his high jump approach and suffered a slight quadriceps pull. In second place at the time, he was forced to pull out.
"You have 10 chances to do well," Reid said. "You also have 10 chances to make a mistake."
Clay lives in Glendora, Calif., just a mile from his training home at his alma mater, Azusa Pacific University, where he met his wife, a former javelin thrower. During his daily workouts, she occasionally brings their children, ages 3 and 1, to the gym to play on the equipment and run around.
She tries to ensure that they are napping when Clay arrives home for a mid-day training break. Clay never, she said, mourns his rough events. He simply gets back to work.
"He's probably the most mentally tough person I've ever met," she said.
At the conclusion of Sunday's events, Clay sat on a folding chair talking to reporters. He was healthy, sure, but not happy. Monday's challenge looked big from that chair.
"I don't get to come back the next two days and work everything out," Clay said. "What I do today is done. In decathlon, you just don't have that opportunity. You have to be on when you get there."
Monday started well. He finished third overall in the 110 hurdles, putting up a time just a hundredth of a second off of his personal best. He threw the discus a couple meters short of the decathlon world record he holds in the event. Then came the pole vault. Get through that, and -- barring an injury -- Beijing would seem a lot closer. Clay didn't shine, but he didn't choke. He made his opening height with ease but got stuck on a bar he's cleared plenty of times previously. No matter. Disaster had been averted. Clay put up the best result of the day in the javelin, then finished up hurting.
But, oddly enough, ready to get out there again.
"Mentally, I think I'm a very tough competitor," he said 30 minutes after finishing. "I am ready to break the world record. There's no doubt in my mind . . . It's just a matter of time."