Bryan Clay declares himself "in the greatest shape of my life."
The injuries that wrecked his 2009 season and kept him out of the World Championships have long since mended.
He tells you he's been putting in "some incredible workouts" since resuming full training in September.
He reveals he's cut 15 pounds from his already-ripped frame yet calls himself "stronger and faster than ever."
And so the 2008 Olympic decathlon gold medalist out of Castle High School of Kāne'ohe and Azusa Pacific University appears back at the top of his game.
Appearing with four other superstars of American track and field at a "Meet The World's No. 1 Team" press gathering at Madison Square Garden Tuesday, Clay exuded total optimism.
He reached one milestone on Jan. 3 — his 30th birthday. He expects to reach another in two to four weeks — when he and wife Sarah greet their third child. And in late May he's determined to have a major assault on another — a decathlon score over 9,000 points and a possible world record.
"I took time off (following his withdrawal from last June's USA Championships in Eugene, Ore.)," Clay said. "Before, I'd just not been letting my body rest. I'm a very active person. Even when I wasn't running or training, I'd been playing basketball, or playing racquetball. That was my lifestyle. I enjoy being active. I enjoy competition, in whatever it is.
"But this time I got a little smarter. I knew this was my time to rest. I needed that time away. And that's what I did this past summer. For the first time in my career, I didn't even look at results online, I didn't follow track meets. I was so lost about what was going on in the sport. My body was just so burned out. I had to physically remove myself from the sport."
While Clay took this vacation from the sport that has consumed him for over a dozen years, another American — 25-year-old University of Texas graduate Trey Hardee — climbed to the top of the global rankings by winning the decathlon gold medal at last August's World Championships in Berlin.
So, adding new spice to Clay's return to track is the knowledge that his top rival for world honors the next few years might be his USA teammate.
Some track experts suggest they will be closer-than-close every time they hook up.
When Clay won the 2008 Olympic title, he scored 8,791 points; when Hardee won the 2009 Worlds, he scored 8,790.
Bottom line: That's just a single-point differential over the two days and 10 events of the decathlon, which is generally rated the toughest challenge in all of sports, and its for No. 1 man the No. 1 athlete on earth.
But Clay insists, "in all respect to Trey, when I'm in this kind of shape, I really think I'm unbeatable."
Pedal to the medal
Clay has the edge in experience. He owns two Olympic medals (a silver in 2004, followed by the gold in 2008) and is determined to be the first decathlete ever to win three Olympic medals. Then again, Hardee is clearly the event's fastest-rising force.
Their upcoming duels — leading all the way up to the London Games of 2012 — are likely to revive memories of the Dan O'Brien vs. Dave Johnson buildup to the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. Or even the Milton Campbell - Rafer Johnson rivalry going into the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
But first things first.
Clay plans to compete in a low-key heptathlon event at Harvard University later this month to demonstrate his full fitness.
Then it would be on to the heptathlon at the World Indoor Championships in Doha, Qatar, March 6 and 7.
After that, it would be on to the major international decathlon in Gotzis, Austria in late May — "where conditions are always just about perfect for a big score," says Clay.
If he's to challenge the 9,000-point plateau (his best-ever total is 8,832; the world record remains Czech star Roman Seberle's 9,026 at Gotzis in 2001,) the Austrian city is the most likely venue.
Next would be the USA Nationals, June 24 to 27 at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa, and perhaps a third and final decathlon for the year at Talence, France, in early September.
Clay's major target for 2011: The World Outdoor Championships in Daegu, Korea, a major stepping stone to London in 2012.
Off the track
Oh, and some other Clay goings-on: He was a major spokesman for the disappointing Chicago bid for the 2016 Olympic Games, at the International Olympic Committee sessions in Copenhagen. He's about to help launch (with other top sports stars) an all-new product for Wheaties (which had featured him on its boxes after the Olympic triumph.)
And he continues the work of the Bryan Clay Foundation, which provides academic and athletic opportunities for underprivileged children in Hawai'i.
"I know I'll never have problems keeping busy," he said.
By ELLIOTT DENMAN