Champion for a Cause

by Rachel White

"Sports do not build character. They reveal it."

This famous saying rang true this summer at the 2012 USA Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, when Bryan Clay '03, facing the most heart-wrenching moment of his athletic career, pressed on after his dreams of a third Olympic appearance were dashed.

On the second day of the decathlon competition, Clay stumbled in the 100-meter hurdles and was initially disqualified. Overwhelmed by the consequences of one misstep, he then fouled on his three attempts at the discus and lost his bid to become the only decathlete in history to medal in three Olympics. He holds a gold from Beijing in ’08 and a silver from Athens in ’04.

“I stood on the sideline crying—it hurt so much,” Clay recalled. “It was such a big blow to have one event take it all away.”

Motivated by a deep respect for his sport and the opportunity to provide a valuable life lesson to his children watching in the stands, Clay knew that despite his natural urge to throw in the towel, he had to continue. He crossed the finish line of the last event, the 1,500 meters, and hugged his competitor, Ashton Eaton, congratulating him on his victory and world record.

With only two U.S. decathletes qualifying for the Olympics, many of Clay’s fans encouraged him to challenge the USA Track & Field (USATF) rules and seek another try at the decathlon to achieve the Olympic “A” qualifying standard and fill the third slot on the team. Demonstrating his character once again, Clay humbly declined the prospect. “My love of the sport compels me to preserve its integrity,” Clay told The New York Times. “For this reason, and though it pains me, I believe that the USATF Committee’s decision to take only two decathletes to London is the right one.”

A month after his defeat, Clay arrived in London not as a competitor as he had planned, but to cheer on U.S. decathletes Eaton and Trey Hardy, whom he calls the future of the decathlon. “I’d love to be a role model for these guys,” he said, knowing that even though the decathlon is an individual sport, he never could have achieved this level of success without his faith and the support of his wife, children, extended family, coaches, and the many along the way who have served as his mentors.

Clay, who struggled with anger over his parents’ divorce, thinks back to his high school coach who instructed him to leave his troubles and pain at the gate of the track. “I listened to his advice, and track became my refuge,” he said. “I knew what Eric Liddell, portrayed in Chariots of Fire, meant when he said, ‘When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.’”

In college, Clay found another mentor in Terry Franson, Ph.D., senior vice president for student life and dean of students. Franson, a highly successful former track coach who secured numerous NAIA national championships for APU and was an unprecedented 10-time, consecutive NAIA Coach of the Year, impressed Clay for another reason. “I saw Terry as a godly man who showed genuine concern for others,” he said. “I was heading down the wrong path, and I desperately needed someone to point me in the right direction.”

With those role models to guide him, Clay became a mentor in his own right to Jake Arnold, the 2010 USA Decathlon Champion who moved from Arizona to Azusa to serve as a training partner. The two trained side by side, six hours a day, up to six days a week, for six months. “Out there training in the rain or the blazing sun with cameras often pointing at us, we were in it together, ” Clay explained. “Jake and I formed this amazing brotherhood that kept us both going.”

A seasoned veteran of the sport, Clay offers Arnold lessons that go beyond the track. “Bryan made mistakes in the past and learned from them,” said Arnold. “I see how he sets priorities, defining what is truly important. Even with his hectic schedule, he’s home in time to hang out with his kids and have dinner as a family. He’s more than just a great athlete.”

That’s the character Franson recognized in him nearly a decade ago. And as he watched from the stands as Clay responded to adversity in Oregon last June, he couldn’t have been more proud. “With nothing to gain from a worldly perspective, Bryan held his head high and finished—no gold, but a simple golden act of courage and fortitude,” Franson said. “The true Olympic spirit was lived out in the life of a man who keeps God First.”

With a rock-solid faith, Clay anticipates the next chapter. “I always knew track represented just a small window of time in my life,” he reflected. “I’m grateful for my Olympic achievements, but it is more important for me to be known as a great husband, father, and difference maker. The Olympics provided me with a huge stage to do His work.”

In May, Clay released his autobiography, Redemption: A Rebellious Spirit, a Praying Mother, and the Unlikely Path to Olympic Gold. In it, he candidly shares his journey from an at-risk kid from a broken home in Hawaii, to an Azusa Pacific University student struggling with his faith, and ultimately, to an Olympic champion who demonstrates that character counts. Clay’s story involves key people he believes God placed in his path at crucial times, and now inspires him to advocate mentoring.

These days, Clay focuses on building a lasting legacy. Through his book and nonprofit foundation, Clay hopes to pay it forward by bringing greater awareness to the need for mentors not only in sports but also in churches, on college campuses, and in local communities. A role model to many, Clay knows that to whom much is given, much is required. “As an athlete, I learned that if I give God my best, He does the rest. I’m at the starting line of a brand-new race, and this is the most important yet.”

Rachel (Nordby ’97) White is assistant director of public relations in the Office of University Relations at Azusa Pacific University.