Clem's dangerous adventure worth it

Monday, October 20, 2008 | 3:17 p.m. CDT; updated 4:47 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 22, 2008
As a goalkeeper, Zach Clem is one of the unspoken leaders on the Columbia College soccer team. He says his experiences on a 2006 trip to run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, helped make him more self assured and well rounded.

COLUMBIA — The streets of Pamplona, Spain are flooded with hundreds of adrenaline seekers. Zach Clem's heartbeat quickens with each tick on the clock.  As tradition dictates, he is dressed in white pants and shirt and has tied a bright red cloth around his waist as a belt. His palms are sweaty and his feet fidgety. He struggles to remember why he decided to try this.

Someone fires a small rocket and the event begins. Gates open releasing a fury of commotion. Clem jumps to see above the crowd, to view the huge creatures at the center of the chaos rushing toward him. But the movement is ineffective because everyone around him is mimicking his motions. Suddenly, the wave of jumpers stops, and Clem, along with the hundreds around him, knows what the next move is. Run.

Clem, a senior goalie for the Columbia College soccer team, traveled to Spain in 2006 to participate with people from around the world in the running of the bulls, which is a part of the nine-day festival of San Fermin. Clem says "The Drifters" by James A. Michener, a novel documenting the travels of six young adults to Europe and Africa, was the inspiration for him and his friend, Cead Nardie-Warner, to embark on the adventure.

Clem and his friend sprint through the event's route, 825-meters long set off by low brick walls and the spectators behind them. They remember the two most important things are to stay far away from the bulls and as close to each other as possible. They jump to look for the bulls a few more times and when Clem turns around, his friend has disappeared. Clem is now alone.

The final destination is the Plaza de Toros de Pamplona, which is the stadium that holds the ring for the bullfights to come. Clem nears the stadium but suddenly finds himself pushed against a wall as a bull runs a couple feet away from him. A police officer shoves him off of the wall, and Clem is forced to continue in uncertainty.

Running toward the stadium, Clem cannot help but think of how he will be able to reunite with his friend considering the raucous crowd surrounding him. He enters the bullring and finds himself in the midst of a mass of bodies that run away from, and sometimes toward, the bulls. To his utter relief, he locks eyes with the one familiar face in this town. Clem and his friend hop over a red fence and for the time being are safe.

Clem's spontaneity on and off the field as well as his confidence contribute to his leadership qualities as an athlete. Entering his fourth year as a goalie for the Cougars, Clem has become one of the unspoken leaders for the team. The directions he shouts to his teammates from the goal box are necessary in order to fulfill one of the many responsibilities for his position, organizing the defense.

"I know guys don't always like it when I yell out to them, but I'm not going to stop," Clem said. "I don't do it so guys follow me...but to help better our team."

Clem's time on the field at Columbia College has been inconsistent. He came off of the bench his first year with the Cougars then started his sophomore year. He was the starting keeper coming in last season, but struggled to keep that position as the Cougars struggled and ended the season at 8-9-1. Clem started a few games in the beginning of this season, but after a four-game losing streak, Cougars coach John Klein decided to change his lineup.

"Of late, we've gone with Goran (Vuklis), but Zach has been very positive, and I am very pleased with his overall commitment to the team," Klein said.

Although Clem is on the bench, he maintains his leadership. He energizes the group before games and uplifts the team when spirits are down.

"I'm the first one up (after the starting line up is announced) saying 'let's go, let's go, let's go' and I try to get everyone going," Clem said. "I try to remind guys to have fun too. I think some of us take it too seriously sometimes."

Standing behind the fence has made Clem and his friend spectators as they watch smaller bulls engage with humans. Clem's adrenaline decreases, and he begins taking more calming breaths. Suddenly a bull lunges over the fence and everyone dashes behind the nearest concrete wall. After frightening lots of people, the bull hops back over the fence, and though they are hesitant to believe it, they are safe again.

Another rocket fires as the last bull scurries into the bullring. When the bulls are secure in their pen, the final rocket fires signaling the end of the running of the bulls.

Clem says he found a new sense of self-assurance after this trip, and so do his parents. Clem says it has made him a better leader on the soccer field even though he is not the starting goalie.

Although he says Clem has always been confident, his father Eric Clem says he saw a change when his son returned from his courageous adventure.

"He had never traveled by himself," Eric Clem said, "and here he traveled halfway across the world. He came back a lot more confident in himself that he could do anything."  

Zach Clem says he feels he has a better understanding of the rest of the world, now that he has left his comfort zone. With eight international players on the Columbia College team this season, it has helped him form more genuine bonds with these players.

"When you're not so naive and ignorant to what's going on around you, it makes you a better person overall, because you're not so narrow-minded," Zach Clem said. "Being not so narrow-minded and having this experience makes it fun sharing stories with the guys on the team. The international guys from our team have taken part in festivals like this one, so it gives you better communication with those guys because I'm not just another stupid American."

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