When U.S. decathlete Tom Pappas became a world champion last year, the e-mails started coming from fans in Greece. It seemed like a fairytale: A young Greek American seemed to be reaching his peak on the verge of the first Summer Games in Athens in more than 100 years.
Few, meantime, paid much attention to Pappas's U.S. teammate Bryan Clay, a small-built kid from Hawaii who had a reputation for breaking down physically. At the last two outdoor world championships, Clay failed to finish because of injuries to a hamstring and a hip flexor.
This week provided a role reversal. While Pappas was felled by a foot injury, Clay surged into second place to win a surprising silver medal. His score of 8,820 points represented the second-best U.S. mark, behind Dan O'Brien's record of 8,891.
World record holder Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic set an Olympic record with 8,893 points to claim the gold. Dmitriy Karpov of Kazakhstan was third with 8,725.
"I'm pumped," said Clay, 24, who stands 5 feet 11 and weighs 174 pounds. "I remember sitting down and watching people like Dan O'Brien, Dave Johnson and Chris Huffins put up huge scores at the Olympic Games, then running around with the flag. I would get goose bumps watching. To know I just surpassed most of them is an unbelievable feeling."
Pappas shared a little of Clay's shock, only for a far different reason. Pappas dropped out of the decathlon after seven events after suffering a severe strain of his left foot while attempting his first pole vault. Pappas's premature departure from the Games put him in elite, if not desirable, company: Stars Alan Webb, Stacy Dragila and Gail Devers all failed to advance out of early rounds.
At the time, Pappas was in fifth place, struggling to get in the medal hunt. Pappas said his foot had been hurting prior to the jump, but he tried to compete anyway. As he ran down the runway on his first approach, attempting a height of 15 feet 1 inch, he said he felt a stab of pain. Pappas never got off the ground. He tossed the pole and dived onto the mat.
"It had been bothering me through all the warmup jumps but I was trying to run more on the outside of my foot and trying not to worry about the pain," Pappas said in a statement released by USA Track and Field. "It did not bother me in the discus. I think maybe just sitting around for an hour after the discus, I thought I might be in trouble. It really started to hurt."
Though Pappas could not walk comfortably, he considered trying to attempt another jump for more than an hour before dropping out.
"It does not feel too good right now," Pappas said. "I had high expectations coming into the meet."
Clay, who attended and still trains at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California, also hoped to make an impression.
He won the 2004 world indoor silver in the heptathlon this year and upset Pappas at the July U.S. Olympic trials. After the first day of competition here, Clay sat in third place behind Sebrle and Karpov. At home in Hawaii, where Clay moved with his mother after his parents divorced when he was 5, friends and family monitored live results on the Internet on a laptop computer in a room at the Waikiki Prince Hotel.
"We were shaking from the excitement and all huddled together around the laptop praying," said Michelle Vandenburg, Clay's mother.
Through three events this morning, Clay failed to move up, but in the javelin he threw a personal best of 228 feet 8 inches -- the second-best mark behind Sebrle's -- to move into second with 8,150 points. Entering the final event, Sebrle stood in first with 8,213 points. Karpov had fallen to third with 8,003.
In the 1,500 meters, Clay ran a personal-best time of 4 minutes 41.65 seconds to clinch the silver.
"People kind of take me for granted, they don't really take me seriously," Clay said. "Whether it's my personality or my size, I don't know, but hopefully, now, they will know I'm for real."
Pat Bigold contributed to this report from Honolulu.