EUGENE, Ore. -- The man who was once the world's greatest athlete walked slowly, in a daze, crossing the track and wandering past long jump pits and shot put rings and javelin runways -- places that saved his life and made him almost famous.
And then Bryan Clay, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, the silver medalist in the event in 2004 and the preserver of a great American tradition that modern Americans have mostly forgotten, sat down in a green chair a few yards from the discus circle, hunched over with his head in his hands.
The public address announcer at Hayward Field was announcing the records in the decathlon discus, including the meet and field records. Bryan Clay holds them both. He didn't seem to notice. He was a ghost.
"It's the worst feeling ever," Clay said.
It's a feeling only the Olympic trials, and perhaps the decathlon, can create.
"There's just no way to explain to people," Clay said. "You train every single day, six, seven days a week, six, seven hours a day. I don't even go into the hot tub with my kids during the week because I can't have my legs be flat for a workout the next day. I can't wrestle with my kids the way they maybe want me to because I'm afraid I might hurt something. Everything, everything you do gets put into this, and then to have it slip through your fingers ..."
At a little after 9:30 on Saturday morning, Clay's front foot clipped the ninth barrier in the 110-meter hurdles. He stumbled, then reeled toward the final hurdle and instinctively pushed it down. He slowed to a walk, crossing the finish line in 16.81 seconds, more than three seconds behind the sport's new golden boy, Ashton Eaton, who was on his way to a world record. Up to that point, Clay had been neck and neck with Eaton. "It's like when I get into a fast race, timing gets a little bit off," Clay said. "I caught my front foot on that hurdle, and it's never a good thing when you do that."
The mishap ruined the chances he had to score the 8,200 points necessary to meet the minimum qualification standard to make the Olympic team.
It turned the usually upbeat Clay into an emotional mess, weeping on his coach's shoulder, and then into a zombie, going through the motions of throwing a discus. He couldn't muster a fair throw in the event, a specialty of his. He barely stepped outside the circle on his final attempt, which would have been a long toss had he not fouled.
What was even worse, had Clay done things a bit differently, he might still have had a chance to make the team. He should have run through the line in the hurdles, said his agent, Paul Doyle. "He could have finished in 15 seconds, and he still would have been on pace for the qualifying standard," he said.
But Clay hesitated, then limped over the line. "At the end of the race, I thought, 'Oh, crap, now I'm going to be disqualified.'"
Initially, he was DQ'd for not attempting to clear the final hurdle. His camp appealed to race officials and his time was reinstated. But Clay didn't know that.
"So going into the discus, I was just doing everything I could to keep my head in it," he said. "I faltered in the disc, and then five minutes after, they told me my time had been reinstated. So then, at that point, it's just my coaches and everybody telling me I needed to finish."
It was a triumph in its own way. The 32-year-old Clay kept slogging through the events, even uncorking the second-best throw of the meet in the javelin. "It's just an internal battle," Clay said. "Not a lot of people can understand, but it is such a big blow to have it go bad, especially when it was going good up to that point. To have one event take it all away, I was standing on the side crying, talking to my coach. It just hurts."
Ultimately, Clay's coaches and family talked him out of quitting what could well be his last major competition. "Your coaches are like, 'You've got to finish,' and your kids are saying, 'Come on, Dad,'" he said. "You want to bury your head somewhere and go cry, and you can't."
Clay has had reason to cry before. He has never garnered the recognition of previous decathlon gold medalists. He won in Beijing by the largest margin of any gold medalist since 1972. He is a born-again Christian who is very vocal about his faith. In his autobiography, he talks about how God speaks to him personally, and how his faith and track and field helped him reform from an angry teen who regularly picked fights, skipped school and smoked dope into a devoted husband, father and Olympic champion. Yet he had little love from the broader world.
He lost his Nike sponsorship, which had been his primary source of income. He was injured much of the past two years and hadn't completed a decathlon since 2010, leaving him in Saturday's all-or-nothing position. London was to be the chance to seal a legacy and bring decathlon back into the public eye. Clay and Eaton and Trey Hardee were seen as a possibility to sweep all the medals in England. A bronze would give Clay a complete set.
The decathlon had other ideas.
"I mean, I wasn't off," Clay said. "Everything was there. I ran 10.45. I did everything I was supposed to do. Two bad events, eight out of 10, that's 80 percent. That's still a B, and it just slips right through ..."
While his family kept him on the track, he credited the crowd for helping him pull through and finish the event. He even said he wants to compete again. "After you finish the 1,500, you think, 'I can do this again.'"
Yet along with the sweetness of the Oregon fans, Clay acknowledged the bitterness of what he has been through. "It's nice to know that people still appreciate what you've done," he said. "I kinda feel like tomorrow, everyone will forget. But it's one of those things."