It's a hot tropical Saturday afternoon in mid-June, 1998. Castle High senior Bryan Clay steps into the starting blocks in Lane 1 on the steamy Kaiser High track.

He looks across at his competition and the sight is daunting.

The "Celebrity 100-Meter Dash Challenge" features six nationally ranked sprinters against any locals willing to risk embarrassment. They've raced against the likes of Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene and they outrun kids like Clay before breakfast.

But Clay is the state's top prep sprinter and he already feels enough swagger to take the risk.

Someone yells from the stands, "Go get 'em, Bryan!" One of the elites, hearing the exhortation, laughs and responds, "That ain't gonna help him."

Yet Clay finishes fifth, in 10.2 seconds, surprising two of the elites and a local adult.

Six years later, Clay is a 30 pounds heavier at a chiseled 185 and almost an inch taller at 5 feet 11. After winning the decathlon at last month's U.S. trials in Sacramento, he's suddenly one of the favorites to win the title as the world's greatest athlete that goes along with the Olympic gold medal. Competition begin today in Athens.

Yet Clay's struggle for respect continues. His more heralded and much taller teammate, world champion Tom Pappas, and Czech world record holder Roman Sebrle are considered the front-runners for the gold.

"Even now that the trials are done, it's hard because you don't feel you get the credit that you deserve," Clay said two days after his victory in Sacramento. "But that's been the story of my life. You keep hoping that one day things will be a little different."

Martin Hee, 63, who received a kidney transplant while coaching Clay in high school, said watching him win the trials and wrap the Hawaiian flag around him was an emotional experience.

"It felt just like that movie, 'Rudy,' " Hee said.

Shortly after the trials, Hee competed in the 100 meters, the high jump, long jump and the softball throw at the U.S. Transplant Games at the University of Minnesota.

"I want to inspire Bryan as much as he inspires me," Hee said.

Clay's unpaved road to the verge of Olympic greatness stretches from the dirt track of Hee's underfunded Castle track and field program on the island of Oahu.

To this day, only two of Oahu's 22 public high schools have rubber tracks. Despite idyllic tropical weather, the budget for track and field was, and remains, next to nothing. Football is the top revenue generator and Hawaii is better known for producing football players -- such as former Washington Redskins linebacker Kurt Gouveia, Chicago Bears center Olin Kreutz and Seattle Seahawks starting tight end Itula Mili -- than track athletes.

But since the dawn of the modern Olympics, Hawaii has placed only two other athletes on U.S. track and field teams.

Steeplechaser Henry Marsh qualified in 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988 and 5,000-meter specialist Duncan Macdonald made the 1976 team. Neither ever won a medal.

Unlike Clay, Marsh and Macdonald are alumni of an Oahu school with a privileged athletic environment: exclusive Punahou School, Hawaii's equivalent of New England's Phillips Academy. By contrast, Castle's athletic program is not only under funded but cursed by nature.

Kaneohe, the Honolulu suburb where the school is located, is on Oahu's wet windward side. Castle lies in the shadow of the Ko'olau mountain range, which forces warm trade winds up to cooler elevations where moisture condenses and falls as rain.

"The track got muddy all the time," Clay said. "And there were potholes. We had to go run in the gym. We'd hurdle in the gym, high jump in the gym. We were doing everything there. We'd just find a way to do it and get through it."

When it rains hard, the track is unusable for at least two days, according to Hee.

"I tried my best to maintain it," Hee said. "I used my truck to grade it with a metal sled, to prepare it and even it out."

Hee uncomplainingly dug into his own pocket to buy shoes, equipment and other essentials that the track program's share of receipts from an after-school food concession didn't cover. It's a concession that Hee personally operates and helps to make up for budget shortfalls in all 18 sports programs at Castle.

Hee's boyhood fascination with the 1951 movie "Jim Thorpe -- All-American" sparked his interest in the decathlon. At 31 he bought his own implements and began participating in the event at meets staged by a local masters club.

His familiarity with the decathlon helped Hee sense Clay's potential.

He told Clay the best way to gain the notice of mainland college track recruiters (the University of Hawaii had no men's or women's track program at the time and the track was in disrepair) would be to excel in several events.

Clay crowned a highly versatile prep career by setting records in all four events he entered in the 1998 state meet (100 meters, 110 meter hurdles, 200 meters, long jump). The marks stand to this day.

Azusa Pacific, which produced Dave Johnson, the 1992 Olympic bronze medal winner in decathlon, came forward with a scholarship offer even before the state meet began.

Clay never scored a high school point in five of the decathlon's events: the javelin, shot put, discus, pole vault and 1,500 meters. Personal bests in three of those -- the javelin, discus and pole vault -- were crucial to his 8,660-point Olympic trials victory (143 better than Pappas).

In Hawaii, the javelin -- the discipline that clinched first place for Clay -- is not sanctioned as a prep event. Clay said he had no idea how a javelin felt until Hee let him throw one in a public park during his senior year.

"I saw a javelin on TV and I threw a broomstick or something to try and see what it was like," Clay said.

While Clay accepted the shortcomings of the Castle track program, he rebelled against his family's disciplinary guidelines. The rebellion nearly cut short his journey to Athens on at least three occasions.

"I'd call my coach and say, 'I'm done. I don't like this. It's too hard and I don't want to deal with it,' " Clay said.

"Coach Hee would say, 'Okay, Brian, why don't we talk about it tomorrow.' "

Clay's problems stemmed from his parents' divorce when he was 10. His mother, Michelle, remarried a year later. Clay's mother and stepfather, Michael Vandenburgh, established strict rules at home that guided Clay's development as a athlete.

"It was very difficult for a teenager but we knew early on that he needed boundaries," Michelle Vandenburgh said.

She said that she and her husband set curfews for Clay that required he never close the door to his room when he talked on the phone.

"We had to know who his friends were, and we had to meet their parents to see if they were bringing their kids up the same way," she said.

But Clay, who is now very close to his mother, his stepfather and his biological father, Greg Clay of Florida, believes his family situation made him stronger and a better decathlete.

"Everything worked out the way it was supposed to and God had his hand in what my parents were doing," he said.

"It had a lot to do with who I am now. It has gotten me through me some of the mentally tough situations. Now I have one more to go."

Bryan Clay had less-than-privileged youth. "It had a lot to do with who I am now," said Clay, who goes for the title of world's greatest athlete beginning today.