Bryan Clay: Feats of Clay

Athlete gets 10 out of 10 for his efforts in the decathlon but he has a love-hate relationship with it. He talks to Robin Scott-Elliot

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The Independent Online

As the announcer in the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing acclaimed the new Olympic decathlon champion, a triumph that comes with the accolade "the world's best athlete", the man in question was tumbling to the dark red track, struggling for breath, the over-riding emotion only relief, utter and absolute relief.

"You take yourself to a place where you've got absolutely nothing left and then you find out you have to push yourself one more step," says Bryan Clay. "That's a tough place to be in."

The decathlon is a tough event, one that separates the men from the masochists, a 10-time battle of athletic ability, strength, speed, endurance and sheer bloody-minded willpower. It's a survival challenge, competed for by what Clay calls a "brotherhood". "It's the only race that when the event is done, the whole field will take a lap [of honour] – that's unique to the decathlon and I just love that."

Whether he loves the decathlon is a more difficult question to answer, and one, at the age of 32, the thoughtful American is still wrestling with. "I enjoy the feeling afterwards. Before the decathlon I'm constantly trying to convince myself that I want to do this, that I want to take myself to that place where it's going to hurt and things are going to be tough. But that's like anything – you want to give your best. Sometimes leading up to it can be worse than doing it. How many times do you take yourself to the brink of complete collapse? It's not a real fun place to go."

The problem for Clay then is that he happens to be an outstanding decathlete, and unable to let it go. After winning gold in Beijing he considered hanging up his spikes, javelin, pole, discus and so on but the desire to become the first man to climb, or perhaps stagger, on to an Olympic podium for three successive Games means he keeps on running, jumping and throwing.

Clay is in London on a flying visit as part of the United States Olympic Committee's "Thank you Britain" campaign. Later he is going to Brixton to talk to young people with the children's charity Kids Company. As part of the campaign the USOC will donate £100 to Kids Company for each medal it wins in London; in Beijing they won 110.

"We realise what the Olympic movement is about, it's about inspiring people to dream and want to be better," says Clay. "We're trying to help leave a legacy here in London that will hopefully inspire the youth. If I look what sport has done in my life, I don't think there's any doubt that sport can change lives. If you ask any of the Olympians that take part in the Games they will tell you that sport has changed their life or had a huge impact on their life. It can do the same for these kids."

Clay recognises a youthful struggle for identity. It is what he used to see in the mirror. On the table in front of him is his book. Its title is Redemption: A rebellious spirit, a praying mother and the unlikely path to Olympic gold. Why? "There was a time when I didn't like the way life looked so I was at a crossroads and needed to make a change and figure out what kind of life I was going to live," he says. Born in Texas, Clay's family moved to Hawaii when he was five. His parents separated when he was 10, a parting he struggled to handle.

"Divorce and things like that made things difficult," says Clay. "I would make bad decisions and get myself in trouble. I was at a crossroads and needed to make a change and figure out what kind of life I was going to live. When I started answering some difficult questions I wasn't liking what I was hearing. That combined with some spurring on by my girlfriend helped push me to make some decisions. It came to a climax all at once. As I figured out priorities and balance in my life, that's when my track career took off. It was that very year and I made my first world championships team."

That was 11 years ago. The girlfriend who spurred him on is now sitting next to him – he and Sarah married in 2004 and have two children. In Beijing she was one of the first on to the track to embrace him and she will be back in London – presuming trials in June are successfully negotiated. They have not been to the capital before but are no strangers to the UK; last summer they toured Scotland and a kilted Clay competed in the Invercharron Highland Games, including tossing the caber. "It was difficult because it was different," he says. Sarah grins at the memory. "If I'd had more time I probably could have done a lot better but it was still fun."

There is less fun to be found in the next few months of training back home in California, six days a week, six hours a day. The goal is to follow Daley Thompson in winning successive decathlon golds. Not even Thompson though managed to make the podium in three Games – he finished fourth in 1988. Clay won silver in Athens at his first Games and the following year won the world title. Come Beijing there was a golden expectation and he lived up to it, leading from the moment he crossed the line in event one, the 100m.

"It was a tough four-year period and that last year was really gruelling. It was pretty stressful, the anxiety and all that kind of stuff, so once it was finished it was like just take a deep breath – it's done," he says. "There is nothing like standing on the podium, hearing your anthem and seeing your flag raised a little bit higher than everyone else's. It's the moment that you had dreams about so it is a little surreal – an out-of-body experience almost. Because I was so tired and exhausted you're kind of numb as well and you don't realise quite what's going on, you're standing there in a daze. Then there is a moment afterwards when you realise it wasn't a dream and that it actually happened." Later in Brixton he happily shows his actual medal to a group of children, who cluster around, curious to get a look at Bryan Clay, winner of the pain games, the world's greatest athlete.

Olympic news you may have missed...

Next week Dwain Chambers is expected to receive the news he has long been waiting for when the Court of Arbitration for Sport rules on the British Olympic Association's byelaw that bars any athlete who has failed a dope test from the Olympics. Opinion among British Olympians consistently favours a lifetime ban from the Games, but Chambers did receive support from one, perhaps unwelcome, quarter yesterday. "I could not be more proud of Dwain Chambers and the terrific human being he has become," said Victor Conte, the man imprisoned over the Balco steroid scandal.

What's coming up...

Today-Sunday A four-strong British gymnastics team is competing in the Osijek Grand Prix in Croatia, including Games medal hopeful Daniel Purvis.

Wednesday-Sunday Britain's women take part in the hockey test event in the Olympic Park.

Who's up?

Richard Hounslow The 30-year-old canoeist was close to quitting after missing out on a place at the Beijing Games. This week his selection was confirmed in two events for 2012.

Bath University It's going to be busy round the university running track this summer. Yesterday Russia joined Malaysia, China, Ghana, Egypt and Barbados in signing a deal to use Bath's facilities ahead of the Games.

Who's down?

The nation's blood banks The country wants blood – your blood. The NHS have announced it needs to increase its blood stocks by 30 per cent ahead of the Olympics and the Jubilee.