A man of pride, drive and compassion, the “World’s Greatest Athlete” is much more than his athleticism.
It was his senior year of high school in 1998. He had his final yearbook in hand, and he wanted to write a note to himself that would remind him of what he wanted to accomplish in his future. It ended up being a drawing — a drawing of the five Olympic rings and the year “2004” written above it.
This same young man found himself standing on the Olympic podium just six years later with a silver medal strapped around his neck. His name was Bryan Clay.
No, Clay did not predict the future. When he drew it, he did not expect it to become reality. It was merely a dream, something that so many athletes have dreamt of doing at some point in their athletic lives.
“I had forgotten that I’d done that until I started looking through some old memories,” he said. “It’s so weird that I even did that. I feel like I did that just because it was cool and I was cocky. I was nowhere near the level I would need to be to earn a spot on the Olympic team. And yes I wanted it to be true, but I can’t say I actually believed that it was going to happen.”
Nevertheless, Clay proved to be different from other dreaming athletes simply by his drive. He loved the competitive spirit of participating in a decathlon, a track and field event that incorporated ten different events. He loved training and challenging himself day after day. Throughout his time as an Olympic athlete, he would train in Azusa six days a week, seven hours a day. All of this commitment proved to be worth it when he bore “USA” across his chest while in Athens.
Of course, making it to the Olympics was an honor in itself. He was simply proud to represent his country and earn a medal. But the competitor in him didn’t let that be enough. He was forced to look up at gold medal winner Roman Sebrle, who had won silver in the decathlon event four years before. At that moment, there was an exceptional fire in him.
“No one was expecting anything when I made it in 2004. I was just coming from a little NAIA school. So being there and doing as well as I did was a dream come true. But when I was on the podium, and the person next to me got that gold medal, and I saw the Czech Republic flag waved higher than the U.S. flag and heard their anthem instead of ours, I didn’t like that,” Clay said with a chuckle. “I wanted that moment for my country.”
This was now his purpose. He wanted to see his nation’s flag waved higher. He wanted to hear Francis Scott Key’s anthem played loudly in front of the entire stadium. He wanted to win a gold medal for America. Four years later in Beijing, that’s exactly what he would do.
As a child, Clay was not the grounded and spiritual individual we see today. Born in Austin, Texas, Clay grew up on Oahu, a small island in Hawaii, to a Japanese immigrant mother and an African-American father. His youth was dominated by a culture that led him to become a misguided kid. His aggression resulted in fights. He had issues with drug usage. There were moments of great depression, enough to contemplate suicide as a pre-teen.
“It was a gradual process to escape that life,” said Clay. “There were several times where I would be at church camps and think ‘I’m going to restructure my life and dedicate my life to Christ.’ And then two days later I’d be back to my old ways. I wanted to rush the process, but ultimately that process took a lot of time.”
Clay’s mother, Michele, was an incredibly influential figure in his life, and he credits her for being able to lead him away from his troubled early years. There were three things that would eventually allow him to propel into a role of stability: his mother, his faith in Christ and his love for track and field.
“God worked miracles out of my messes. My parents prayed for my safety. I built relationships with people, especially at APU. Over time, my past disappeared and my life turned to something greater,” he said.
Coached by Dacre Bowen and Martin Hee at James B. Castle High School in Honolulu County, Clay competed for his high school’s track team. He impressed several college coaches with his abilities, including Kevin Reid, who at the time was the coach of Azusa Pacific’s track and field team for nearly 20 years. Reid scouted Clay to APU, and as a majority of student-athletes tend to do in Azusa, he fell in love with the campus’ atmosphere.
“There was just a sense of peace that I felt when I walked around the campus. And even though I was a young kid and I was nervous to even be there, that sense of peace provided me with ease and made me feel like I could eventually belong there. Before I left the campus tour, I committed to Azusa and signed my letter of intent with Kevin (Reid), and canceled every tour I had with other universities,” said Clay.
When arriving at APU, Clay was introduced to coach Mike Barnett. Barnett himself participated in the Summer Olympics in 1992 after an impressive tenure with the Cougars as a member of the javelin team. Barnett, along with American Olympic hero Chris Huffins, eventually encouraged Clay to become a decathlete.
This was no easy feat. In fact, the decathlon often has the perception of being the most difficult event under the track and field bubble. Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner, who won a gold medal as a decathlete in 1976, called the competition, “a brick wall which nobody is able to climb.” However, Clay’s dominance as a Cougar proved that he was fully capable of climbing that wall.
During his three-year tenure at APU, Clay became a seven-time NAIA Champion. He won a decathlon national title, along with three pentathlon titles. He holds program records in both events with 8,230 points in the decathlon and 4,015 in the pentathlon. Along with shattering records for the school, he also shattered NAIA records. His 23 All-American performances are the most in association history. Overall, the Cougars won three national championships while Clay was a part of the roster.
“At first I was just happy to be competing and to be there. But as time went on I began to understand how much work I needed to commit to,” he said. “I was mentored by some amazing decathletes who helped me learn the event more and how to train for it. And coach Reid was just a phenomenal coach who taught me that execution comes first. So from there, it was a process that allowed me to grow in the sport more and more.”
After all of this incredible success, Clay was one step closer to his Olympic dreams. Two years after leaving APU, he competed in the 2004 Olympic trials at only 24 years old. With an incredible 8,660 points, Clay won gold at the trials and booked his ticket to Athens. A month later, he had one of the greatest rookie performances in the event’s history, earning what was at the time a personal best 8,820 points. It was the fourth-highest total in decathlon history, making it the most a decathlete scored without earning gold at the Olympics. Miraculously, his historic showing wasn’t enough.
Arguably, this is where the legend of Bryan Clay begins.
He trained the hardest he had ever trained before following the Olympic disappointment. That preparation showed in 2005 when Clay won gold at the World Championships. Although he couldn’t defend his title in 2007 due to injuries, he went into the 2008 Olympic Trials rested and prepared. By the end of the decathlon event, Clay had earned 8,832 points. Not only was that total enough for a first-place finish, but it was also a world record.
Yet, still, only one thing remained on his mind – the Olympics.
In Beijing, Clay led throughout the entire two-day competition. He was strong in the 100-meter dash, which started the event. He also continued to build points with impressive performances in the discus, where he posted a 53.79-meter throw, and the javelin, which he threw 70.97 meters.
The last event was the 1,500-meter run, and Clay finished far behind his silver and bronze competition. Yet, the point difference was already so high between him and the rest that it didn’t matter. By the time the competition ended, Clay had won by 240 points, which was the highest margin since 1972. When Clay crossed the finish line, he was a gold medalist. He was titled the “World’s Greatest Athlete.”
“There are two moments you go through after winning at the Olympics. One is the elation of crossing the finish line knowing that you’ve won, and the other is when the gold is placed around your neck,” he said. “Everything in the world just seems perfect at that moment. You just feel content, nothing else is on your mind. It is complete satisfaction. It is one of the rare moments where the world gets to actually watch an individual succeed in something they’ve worked their entire life for.”
He immediately had another Olympic medal on his mind following the 2008 victory. Defending a gold medal in the decathlon event was something that only Bob Mathias and Daley Thompson had ever done (since then, American Ashton Eaton has also done it, winning gold in 2012 and 2016). Along with this, a decathlete had never won three medals in the Olympics.
Clay returned to the Olympic Trials in 2012. Heartbreak occurred on the second day when he tripped over the ninth hurdle while competing in the 110-meters hurdles. That one blunder cost him a chance of competing in London and defending his title. Despite the disappointment, Clay finished all the events, referencing that he had to for his wife, kids and supporters.
“I’ve always seen failures or disappointments as opportunities for refinement. And as you go through life, you get the chance to look back on different times of your life and understand why you went through them,” he said. That period was a great opportunity for me to reflect, and looking at it now it definitely helped shape my life today. God had a plan for me, and a third Olympic medal was not a part of that plan. And I find joy in knowing I am where I’m supposed to be.”
His life following 2012 was heading towards something more meaningful to him, his wife Sarah and his family. Sure, he had proven his ability as a hurdler. As a long jumper. As a pole vaulter. As a sprinter. But now, he was ready to be a father for his three kids: Jacob, Katherine and Elizabeth.
“Everyone goes through seasons in life. And right now my season is taking the time to be the best husband and father that I can be,” Clay stated. “It is my most important role. I’m far from perfect, and I screw up in that role every single day. But they are where my commitment lies.”
Along with family, Clay is focusing on the businesses he has developed from the ground up. He is the founder and CEO of the Bryan Clay Foundation, which he developed in 2005 to help assist the youth in learning to give back to their community. He has also become an entrepreneur, as he is the co-founder of Bred Ventures, which is a tech incubator that focuses on fitness apps, and Eat The Frog Fitness, a group fitness franchise.
Besides the gold medal, two of the most established awards Clay has earned in his life are the Visa’s Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2011 and the Jesse Owens Award in 2008.
The Jesse Owens Award, named after the four-time gold medalist, is given out by the United States Track and Field which is the governing body of the sport. It is, easily, the most established award the sport hands out to competitors as it signifies the strongest athlete of that year.
The honor built the resume of Clay even further and showed just how phenomenal of an athlete he is. Need more proof? After winning the gold medal in ’08, Clay was tested by SPARQ to see if he deserved the title of “greatest athlete.” The point of the test was to give him a score based on his athleticism among individual sports. He took one for American football, a sport he had never played under an organized league. His score was 130.40, which at the time was the highest football score the test had ever seen. Indeed, he had earned that title that day.
However, the Visa Humanitarian of the Year Award (which was also given out by the USATF) shows a different side of Clay; the side he wants you to recognize. He is someone who is passionate about showing people, particularly the youth, their full-potential through health and fitness. And along with this, how to provide for others and encourage those around you.
It is not about personal distinctions and accomplishments for Bryan. Rather, it is about how he shifts the lives of those around him in a positive way. And now, his goal is to use the resources around him to influence people to do the same.
“As I work through my business endeavors the goal is to help others. If I can improve the life of someone else, then I’ll do whatever I can to do that. That’s where you find joy in life later on, I think. Not by the mountains that you conquer but by how many lives you can improve,” Clay said.
These are the two things that make Bryan Clay such an enigma: his athletic will, and his altruistic heart.
“I’ve never been the type of guy that needs attention. If I could retire right now and live a simple life with my wife and kids, I would absolutely do that,” he mentioned. “I want to be at peace with my family and where we are in life. I want to keep God at the forefront of my mind and heart through our entire process. And, ultimately, I just always want to be thankful for everything that is a part of my story.”