With just a two week to go before his first decathlon of the season, Bryan Clay has to be feeling pretty good. Because he honestly has a difficult time saying which of the ten events he considers to be his strongest.
“It’s getting tough to say,” the Olympic silver medallist said. “I’m getting pretty good in a lot of them.”
It’s not a boastful claim by the 25-year-old, who in Athens last year raised his personal best to an 8820 point tally to finish just 73 points behind Olympic champion Roman Sebrle. It was merely a confirmation that nearly seven years after he first tried his hand at the event, that things are finally really coming around.
“That’s what we’ve been working on, to compete on the same level as the others. And in a few years,” he said, “we’re going to get there.”
From his first decathlon, held largely in a grass field by his high school in Kaneohe, Hawaii in 1998, to his third place finish at the 2001 national championships with his first 8000 point-plus effort, and to his breakout 8660 point performance to win last year’s U.S. Olympic Trials, Clay has been gradually and consistently clawing his way to the top of his demanding event. And now that he’s nearly there, his recent performances hint at the prospect that he can still become much better.
Already this spring, Clay has added two metres to his personal best in the discus with a 54.37 throw, and ran his fastest hurdles race, clocking 13.78.
“That was after I crashed seven of the 10 hurdles. We’ve been doing a lot of hurdles work. We’ve got some timing issues to work out, but the speed over the hurdles is there.”
Besides his early season PBs, there have been other indications that 2005 could be a big year for the still young American. In training, he said, he’s cleared 2.06 in the High Jump, just two centimetres shy of his best, using just a half approach. He’s leaped more than seven metres in the Long Jump, also from a half approach.
“Just little things like that. I just have to stay patient and healthy. There’s still a lot to do before the World Championships.”
While decathletes by nature don’t ever master any of the disciplines, Clay seems to have mastered that equally difficult task of patience.
He’s happy with the training routine that first led to his runner-up performance at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest last year and then later to his Olympic silver medal finish in Athens, and he’s, for the most part, sticking to it.
“It really hasn’t changed that much,” he said. “We sit down each year and see what went well, what needs work and what’s been working. And we try to drop the bad things.”
As an Olympic medallist, one with the dubious distinction of piecing together the highest non-winning total ever in the Games, Clay said he’s not upping the intensity of his training sessions. That would after all, seem to be the impatient thing to do.
“It hasn’t really intensified. If anything, I can train a little bit more relaxed. In the past, if I had a bad discus throw, I’d get really upset. Now, I take a little bit of time to see what I did wrong and how to improve the throw.”
At the moment, Clay is in San Diego preparing for next month’s Hypo Meeting in Gotzis, Austria, traditionally the strongest gathering of multi-event talent in the world. But he’s not alone. Sebrle, whose World record of 9026 points will celebrate its fourth anniversary in Gotzis, accepted Clay’s invitation to join him for a month-long training stint.
“After last year Roman and I have created a friendship just from competing,” Clay said, illustrating the camaraderie typical among decathletes. “They’ve never been here before, and I told them they should come and enjoy the warm weather.”
While they’ve stuck to their own training routines and schedules, Clay said that the spring set-up has its benefits.
“The dynamic is good, just knowing someone’s watching you. It’s a little more exciting for me, and more fun, and that’s made it just a little more intense. We’re really just hanging out more than anything else.”
Clay made a huge leap last year, upping his best by nearly 400 points from his 2003 PB of 8482 points set with his second place performance at the national championships. The improvement, he said, was due largely to his physical and mental maturity and simply from “doing the events longer.” But he also credits his higher level of competitions in recent years where he was able to go head-to-head with the likes of Sebrle.
“Getting more competitions and knowing that these guys are human really helped,” he said. “Instead of seeing Roman as the World record holder, it helped seeing them as less that something supernatural.” Now, Clay said, “he’s just a friend out there competing. It’s a combination of that and doing the events a little longer.”
Clay did eventually concede that his 100 metres – his PB is a notable 10.39 - does stand out the most, “as far as the space between me and the other competitors.” But he stressed that in competition, he doesn’t stress about collecting personal bests. In Athens he set just two PBs, in Sacramento three.
“I really just try to work on consistency. I just go out and try to do the same things I’ve done before a hundred times. I know what my best marks are; I just try to get as close to them as possible.” Not focusing on personal bests, he said, “Doesn’t put any pressure on myself. I just need to do something I’m used to doing.”
Nor is he placing an emphasis on Dan O‘Brien’s U.S. record of 8891 set 12 ½ years ago, still the sixth highest total ever.
“I’ve become good friends with Dan O’Brien over the past few years, and I really respect what he’s done and I really respect the record,” Clay said, refusing to make predictions. “But,” he admitted, “I do know that I’m very well capable of it. It’s something I’d like to have next to my name.”