The Tri Village High School grad and former University of Akron star was in the 800 meter finals, a race he knows well.
And yet, although he’d won a bronze medal in the 800 at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – the first American to win an Olympic medal in the event in 24 years – he was being overlooked this year.
Needing to finish in the top three Monday night to win a berth on the U.S. team that heads to the Tokyo Games next month, he was being written off by many track observers as an also-ran in the finals.
The race favorite was Donovan Brazier, the American record holder and world champion. Some believed he could be the first American to win Olympic gold in the 800 since Dave Wottle did in Munich in 1972.
Bryce Hoppel, a two-time NCAA champion in the 800 meters, was also figured to make the podium, as was Isaiah Jewett, the current NCAA champ.
Never mind that Clayton, at 26, was the defending Trials champion and was the only runner with Olympic experience in the field.
“For Clayton it was a little bit of that old ‘How quickly they forget,’” Mark said. “But he loves being the underdog.”
And to many he was an underdog this time.
Since Rio, he’d had some struggles. In 2017 he attempted to double in the 800 and 1,500 meters at the U.S. Championships and had failed to make the team in either event. In 2019 he finished eighth in the world championships.
That same year his coach at the Nike Oregon Project – Alberto Salazar –was banned for drug offenses involving other athletes.
Clayton parted ways with that program and rather than sign with other high-profile teams, he returned to Ohio and the mentorship of his old college coach Lee LaBadie.
Then, in the past two weeks, he’s been dealing with a hamstring strain that restricted his training.
Rather than crumble, Clayton admitted he built a solid chip on his shoulder.
“I like to read things and see what’s being said out there,” he told reporters at the Trials late Monday. When he saw he was being considered part of a “second tier” of runners in the event, he said, “I kind of liked that. I like having a bit of a chip on my shoulder and (seeing) that doubt. I took it to heart.”
He said he felt OK after Friday’s heat race and, except for a little muscle spasm following Saturday’s semifinal, he felt OK again.
That set the stage for Monday’s two-lap final at Hayward Field.
Jewett set the pace, running a 50.6 second first lap.
Clayton hung back and ran a tactical race that LaBadie had mapped out, Mark said.
“I was just really being patient. It kind of worked all weekend,” Clayton would tell an NBC interviewer later. “Then Isaiah decided to push it. Then he decided to push it again and then again.”
With a little over 200 meters to go Clayton began pressing to set up his trademark late-race kick.
That’s how he’d won the Trials five years ago and how he’d taken bronze in Rio when was sixth with 200 meters left.
Meantime, Brazier faded badly and finished eighth.
Clayton reeled in Hoppel and then began running down Jewett.
“I just kept closing, closing, closing and the last 100 yards I was just ‘How tough can I be?’” he said.
He couldn’t have been any tougher.
He passed Jewett and won going away in 1 minute, 43.17 seconds.
It was the fastest time in the world this year and just two-tenths of a second off his bronze medal-winning time in Rio five years ago. And this came after not being able to fully train the past few weeks.
Many folks are calling Clayton’s victory the biggest upset of the Trials, but his mom, Melinda – who was also in Eugene for Monday’s final – thinks they are overlooking something important about her son:
“It was pretty exhilarating, but I know he’s got it in him. He can pull through when he needs to. On the big ones – the really big races – he’s got it.”
Lessons learned in Darke County
Clayton grew up on a 37-acre farm outside New Madison. He raised blue ribbon winning pigs, was a in the Future Farmers of America club at Tri Village and, most importantly, began making a name for himself as a track and cross country runner.
He was a three-time, All Ohio cross country performer and as a senior won the small school 1,600 meter title at the state track meet
He ended up at Akron where he was a four-time All American, won 12 Mid-American Conference titles and a pair of NCAA crowns – at 800 meters and outdoors at 1,500 meters.
While his mom, who lives on the Darke County farm, and his dad, who lives in Piqua, both went to the Rio Games, many folks back home in the surrounding towns like New Madison, New Paris, Hollansburg, Palestine, Greenville and others, all followed the journey of their favorite son with much fervor.
There were signs in the yards and Olympics viewing parties at homes and at the school.
Two years ago Clayton married Olympic sprinter Ariana Washington, who had competed at Rio and won gold as part of the U.S. 4 x 100 relay team at the 2017 World Championships.
Since they have moved back to Ohio, she has put aside her track career to help bolster his effort. And LaBadie has done the same, resigning from his Akron coaching job to train Clayton full-time.
Yet one of the things that lifts Clayton the most comes from those boyhood days back on the farm.
“Those lessons that are instilled in a farm kids and livestock kids – learning to work hard and be reliable – those lessons don’t go away later on,” Melinda said. “They work in track as well.”
Fervor building again
Since no foreign fans are being permitted to come to Japan for the Olympics – part of the COVID-19 protocols to keep everyone safe – Clayton’s parents were both in Eugene for the Trials. So were some running friends from Akron and Cincinnati.
Back home, the fervor has begun to build again.
“His high school coach sent me a picture of the sign he’d put up in his yard,” Melinda said. “And at Schlechty’s bar in New Madison, they said they were packed to watch his race.”
Mark said by Monday night he had 87 texts from people back home.
“I’m trying to answer each of them one by one,” he said as he sat in the Portland airport Tuesday.
Melinda had taken a red-eye flight back to Indianapolis. She works at a Richmond bank now, but she wouldn’t have any photos from Monday night’s race to show her co-workers.
“To be truthful, I’m usually crying so hard that I couldn’t see if I had to take pictures,” she admitted. “They’d all be blurry.
“I’m taking a different approach this time than I did in 2016. I just try to stay in the moment and take in everything, rather than trying to take pictures while its happening. I don’t want to miss anything. This is just too special.”
It is, after all, a Mother’s Day gift as well.