Will Claye's high school career at
Mountain Pointe (Phoenix)
was cut short by his own doing: He was so eager to get his college career started that he graduated a semester early, in December of 2008.
It's one thing for a football player to do it, as he still gets to compete in his sport of choice as a senior. But for a track athlete to get a jump on his college track career, it meant forgoing his senior year.
It clearly didn't slow down the 2012 Olympian, as he went on to a stellar collegiate career at Oklahoma and then Florida after his sophomore year.
And for those who knew Claye from the very start, his eagerness to get started early came as no surprise.
"He was running from the start and we couldn't get him to stop from going all of the time," Claye's mother, Saffie, remembered with a hearty laugh. "He has always gone ahead and done whatever he wanted."
That go-for-it-all, want-it-now approach has served Claye well over his years – including an NCAA national outdoor title in the triple jump on his 18th birthday when he should have still been in high school – and he hopes it continues to pay off as a double qualifier for the London Games.
"I've been able to do a lot, pretty much everything I wanted to put me in this position," Claye said before leaving for the Opening Ceremonies. "Now, I have to come home with gold."
Claye will compete in the long jump, which gets underway Friday, and the triple jump, which has its finals on Aug. 9. He has always been stronger in the triple, winning the Arizona state title at 52-feet and 4.75 inches in the spring of 2008 as a junior and the national title with leap of 56-10 as a junior, but still managed to finish second in both the events at the Olympic Trials.
"My first year of college I had aspirations, knowing I was three years out," he said. "Then by the end of my freshman year (at Oklahoma), I knew I had a future as an Olympian. I knew if I stayed on the right path I would be here some day.
"You work so long to get to this point and now that I am here there is nothing going to stop me from performing my best. Someone might outperform me, but I will be at my best."
He isn't the favorite at either event in London after finishing as the runner-up in the national trials, but he is no longer hampered by a right ankle injury and enters the biggest event of his career free of everything other than a desire to come home a champion.
"The mental part is what it's about at this point," Claye said. "You have to just stick with what you do in practice when there is no pressure. The physical part is there, but mentally you have to stay composed whether it might be raining or the biggest jump of your life.
"That's the hardest part is staying calm in the competition and treating it like any other event no matter how big. Having someone like (coach Jeremy Fischer, who was also at Oklahoma and Florida with Claye) with me the whole way makes it easier."
Claye has rarely taken the easy route to what he wants, whether it was leaving early from Mountain Pointe, which also has men's volleyball player Reid Priddy in London, or having to sit out a year after transferring to Florida. In fact, he almost left Mountain Pointe even earlier when he wanted to transfer to Chandler High like some of his friends did.
Only his mother, for one of the few times, has been able to keep Claye grounded.
"There was a time he wanted to transfer to Chandler, but his mother knew this was the best place for him," Mountain Pointe Athletic Director Ian Moses said. "He was being stubborn and there were times I had to go pick him up at his home and bring him to school. It was clear his mother was going to do what she thought was best for him and that was to stay (at Mountain Pointe)."
Claye, who cut off his patented dreadlocks before the Olympic Trials, has come a long way in a short period of time, but that's become his trademark since leaving Mountain Pointe early.
"It really hit home when I saw his name as a dark horse in the (Sports Illustrated) Olympic preview," Moses said. " I still see him as a 17-year-old boy with dreadlocks, but that will change when I see him wearing red, white and blue with USA emblazoned across his chest." Jason P. Skoda, a former Arizona Republic and current Ahwatukee Foothills News staff writer, is an 18-year sports writing veteran. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 480-272-2449.