People of Preston Cardio crazy clay

Story by: Morgan Price

Fitness enthusiasts straggle into an upstairs dance studio and into the glare of fluorescent lights. The bright orange digital clock near the door displays the time. It’s 5:45 on a Thursday.

A black man with long arms and matching long legs is standing in the back of the room. He is smiling a gapped-toothy grin as he asks people their names and hometowns. Music fills the room as after he shoves the CD into the player.

Clay Smalley adjusts a colorful bandana positioned on his bald head as he’s about to begin his Thursday night ritual.

“I’ve got some good news and I got some bad,” said Clay. “Which do you all want first?”

“Bad,” the class said collectively.

“Well, I had a long day today and I didn’t get to each lunch,” he said. “That’s the bad news. The good news is since I’m feeling tense and tired, I’m going to have to take it out on you guys so I can feel better.”

Clay Smalley, 62, has been an athlete his entire life. He started teaching aerobics at the Preston Center in 1979. Originally from Springfield, Kentucky, he grew up in the projects with his parents and siblings.

“I guess it was stereotypical, blacks lived on one-side of town and rich white folk lived on the other side of town,” he said.

As a young boy Clay’s father coached kids in his community.

“Anything that had to do with sports he was coaching it,” Clay said.

His father received an honorable discharge from the Army when rheumatoid arthritis began to invade his body.

“A cane led to crutches, crutches led to a walker, walker led to a wheelchair,” Clay said as he relived his father’s sufferings. “I always loved sports, but in the back of my mind I was like, ‘Man, am I going to have this crippling injury?”

In the morning and afternoon hours, Clay is almost unrecognizable. He trades in his basketball shorts and “du rag” for a blazer and slacks. His daytime office is down a dimly lit hallway of a local alternative school with a sign that pokes out and reads:

“Clay Smalley

Day Treatment”

For the past 20 years Clay has been a recreational therapist and career social scope counselor at Warren County Day Treatment Center, where he works with at-risk students helping them return to a traditional school environment.

There, they refer to him as Mr. Smalley.

Clay’s classroom has big windows along one side. Chairs go up and down the middle. Right when you walk in the door to the left is Clay’s desk cluttered with pictures, memories and photos of Clay’s father, nieces, grandson and wife. The wall above the desk is graffitied with Muhammad Ail memorabilia.

Clay first became interested in kickboxing because he was a Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali freak.

“I watched all of his fights,” Clay said when asked about his admiration towards Ali. “I used to draw pictures of him and brother Joe Frasier when I was a kid,” Clay said.

During Clay’s workout class, someone might catch a glimpse of the young boy who dreamed of being in the ring.

“Like one of the greatest fighters of all time born out of Louisville, Kentucky, Mama named him Clay, daddy named him Clay, but he was known as MUHAMMAD ALI,” Clay yells over the microphone, not like he needs one.

The class follows Clay’s lead, shuffling their feet left and right simultaneously punching the air.

It’s a punch.

A block.

And a punch.

The people below are most likely wondering why the ceiling is shaking. Did someone let 20 bulls loose?

Clay swipes his hand across his forehead then brings his hand to his lips. He pokes out his tongue and licks the sweat right off.

“Mummmm,” he said. “Tastes like blackberry.”

Some people laugh while others give their friend that hauled them to this crazy guy’s workout class a look.

Chloe Skeese was giving that look. This was her first time attending Clay’s class. She had been hearing others girls hype up this class they go to on Thursdays called Cardio Craze.

“I figured it’s my only day off, so I may as well go and test it out,” said Skeese. “Just to see what it was like.”

She laughs saying that her friend gave her a warning before she stepped through the door.

“They said I’m warning you about this Clay person, like he’s crazy,” Skeese said, who had never been to any workout class before.

The GroupX class is called Cardio Craze for a reason. Sometimes the class begins by everyone running the track. Another day it’s cycling for 30 minutes then jump rope, kickboxing and step. Each class is some crazy new adventure that some people like and others do not.

“I always remind people that that’s my personality,” Clay said. “I like to be funny and joke around.”

Those who don’t like Clay’s craze don’t come back every week.

Clay’s wife Donna, a petite woman with a pretty face, has been coming back for years now.

“I have to make every class,” Donna said. “This is what we do. We love to exercise.”

Donna grew up right next door to Clay. They have known each other since they were seven years old. They reconnected after both had been married and divorced.

Clay’s way of instructing aerobics is unusual. He has no sense of time on paper – the class is scheduled from 6 to 6:45.

“I can’t do anything in 45 minutes,” Clay said.

He makes up military style chants and comes up with nicknames for people taking the class. Skeese was nicknamed Skipper after Barbie’s little sister.

“I’m not even paying attention to him,” Donna said. “That’s just the way he is.”

“It makes people think about it being more fun than it is painful,” Clay said.

The class ends about 7:15. Clay helps everyone put up their equipment and asks if they had a good time.

“I want people leaving knowing they got a good workout,” Clay said.

Donna said as long as Clay is able to workout, he will continue to do it.

“The only person who knows when my number is up is the man upstairs,” Clay said. “If I die today, eh, I had a good life.”

Created By
Morgan Price


Photo and video by: Hayley Robb

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