Fitness instructor pushes students outside of the classroom

Clay Smalley, a Group X fitness instructor, teaches a Cardio Craze aerobics class on Thursday at the Preston Center.

Zirconia Alleyne

The bass of pop and techno beats pump through the aerobics room as more than 50 students step, kick and punch across the hardwood floor. Momentum is high, hearts are racing and the stench of sweat permeates the air.

It’s Cardio Craze, a 90-minute workout class at the Preston Center every Tuesday and Thursday. And at the center of it all is Clay Smalley — 56 years old and full of vigor.

Smalley has been teaching the class, formerly known as Step Kick, since before Preston was built. He said physical health has always been a major part of his lifestyle.

As a child, he watched his dad, Clay Marshall Smalley Sr., battle with rheumatoid arthritis, which caused chronic inflammation of his joints. Because of the condition, his father was honorably discharged from the Army and unable to work.

“It was one of the things that made me want to be physically fit,” he said. “I didn’t know if it was hereditary.”

Smalley grew up in Springfield, the oldest boy of six brothers and two sisters. Life was difficult, but he said they didn’t dwell on it.

“We were a close-knit family and we took care of each other,” he said. “We weren’t aware of being financially poor because we did family stuff all the time.”

Although his father was disabled, he didn’t fall short as a father figure. In fact, Smalley said he always wanted to be like his dad.

Smalley Sr. ran the Washington County Community Center in his neighborhood, which was the hangout spot for kids to get help with homework, eat a hot meal or play with their friends. Smalley said watching his dad interact with other kids inspired him to do the same.

Most students on campus know Smalley as the tough-as-nails aerobics instructor. But during the day, he’s the recreational therapist for Warren County Day Treatment, an alternative school that tries to get troubled youth back on the right track.

The students, who range from grades 8th to 12th, recently began a new self-help program called Why Try. Smalley brought in friend and WKU Police officer Tim Gray to teach students about the Why Try motivation formula. Gray said Smalley is a great example for the teens at Day Treatment.

“He’s in a position where generally he’s accepting people at their worst, but Clay refuses to let them accept mediocrity,” Gray said. “He inspires people to greatness. He challenges them to do their best.”

Daniel Mendoza, 16, said Smalley has been a positive influence on his life since coming to day treatment.

“He jokes around a lot which takes the pressure off,” Mendoza said. “He keeps me on track and shows me what to do and what not to do.”

Smalley said he’s blessed to be able to teach students at Day Treatment and Cardio Craze.

“If you work hard, you can get anything you want out of life,” he said. “I try to instill that in all the students I work with.”