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Clay is making the most out of an eventful career

Glendora decathlete could be the first to win three Olympic medals in the event.

June 22, 2012|Helene Elliott
  • Bryan Clay reacts after competing in the men's heptathlon pole vault at the 2010 IAAF World Indoor Athletics Championships.
Bryan Clay reacts after competing in the men's heptathlon pole vault… (VALERY HACHE / AFP/Getty…)

EUGENE, ORE. — The world's greatest athlete insists he's like the rest of us.

"I'm just a regular guy," Bryan Clay said. "I still have to take out the trash, I'm still changing air-conditioning filters and light bulbs and changing the oil in the cars and doing all that kind of stuff."

Just like any of his neighbors in Glendora -- except Clay won a silver medal in the decathlon at the 2004 Athens Olympics and a gold medal at Beijing four years later and, with that, the honorary title of best all-around athlete on the planet.

He's just a regular guy on an extraordinary pursuit of three Olympic decathlon medals.

"Nobody's done it. So I'm kind of hoping that it goes well for me," he said, typically understated.

Clay, an Azusa Pacific graduate who still trains at his alma mater, has put much more than mere hope into a quest that will shift into high gear Friday at Hayward Field on the first full day of the U.S. Olympic track and field trials.

To start the two-day decathlon Clay will compete in the 100-meter dash, long jump, shotput, high jump and 400-meter run, leaving the 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500-meter run for Saturday.

The top three finishers will earn berths on the London Olympic team and might pull off a U.S. sweep.

Clay's mission needs context. Britain's Daley Thompson came close to winning three Olympic decathlon medals by taking gold in 1980 and 1984 and finishing fourth in 1988, and the great Bob Mathias might have done it if he hadn't retired at age 21 after winning his second straight gold medal in 1952. Rafer Johnson retired after winning silver in 1956 and gold in 1960. More recently, Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic won silver in 2000 and gold in 2004 and finished sixth in 2008.

For Clay, 32, to reach the medal stand again would be a testimony to his longevity, perseverance and a support system that has hardly changed for more than a decade.

"The reality of it is that four years is a long time for an athlete," he said Thursday. "I think the average football career is like four years. So you've got people whose whole careers are four years long, and that's it.

"For me trying to win this third medal, what I think is so special about it is that it tells you that you've been the best or one of the best in the world for a 12-year period. That's a long, long time. As I've found out over these last few months and few years, for it to happen once with everything happening the way it's supposed to happen, is pretty phenomenal. For it to happen twice is like unheard of.

"And now to have a chance and possibly have it happen three times, I think it's once in a lifetime."

He is fit and training well, he said, bouncing back from an off year that included a fall at the 2011 U.S. championships. He missed the world meet, where Trey Hardee of Austin, Texas, won a second straight title. Hardee and Oregon native Ashton Eaton, the world decathlon runner-up and current heptathlon world-record holder, are Clay's most likely rivals.

"Trey and Ashton are definitely the future of the decathlon for the U.S. For me to say anything else would be kind of silly," Clay said. "They're the young guys coming up and they've scored well and hopefully they'll be able to carry that flag for us in the years to come -- but just not too early."

Clay isn't ready to yield to them yet, though he dipped a toe into his post-athletic life by writing a book. "Redemption: A Rebellious Spirit, a Praying Mother and the Unlikely Path to Olympic Gold" tells of his angry youth and how he found peace and a purpose through sports, faith and family.

"The goal was to share my journey, share the stories, share the ups and the downs and everything in between in the hopes that somebody would find that and read it and find some sort of inspiration in it," he said. "And be inspired to be better."

Striving for excellence is an important lesson for his kids -- 7-year-old Jacob, 5-year-old Katherine and 2-year-old Elizabeth.

"I don't think they know that their dad is different than any other dad, but again, that's what I like. I like them not thinking that their dad is any different than any other dad out there," he said.

No different except he might have make room in his trophy case this summer for a historic medal.

--

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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