Remembering Zoe Clay (’22)

Clay, who recently passed away, leaves behind a legacy of community support
Zoe Clay poses for their graduation tabloid photograph in 2022.
Zoe Clay poses for their graduation tabloid photograph in 2022.
Katie Fox

Physical reminders of Zoe Clay (‘22) are everywhere on Wake Forest’s campus. One of Zoe’s Latin projects still sits on the desk of classics Professor Dr. T. H. M. Gellar-Goad’s office. A research poster Zoe made regarding iron deficiencies in female distance runners hangs on the wall of the women’s running team’s locker room. In Assistant Cross Country/Track & Field Coach Ashley Bastron’s office, a pair of Zoe’s running shoes — featuring the inscription “imperfect and incomplete” on the soles — sits on a mantle. A tattoo Zoe designed is on Bastron’s arm. 

Zoe died in a crash during an Oct. 8 bicycle race, but according to five interviews conducted by the Old Gold & Black, their memory lives on — not only in those physical reminders and in the seven people who received the organs Zoe donated, but in the hearts and minds of everyone who knew them. Tom Clay, Zoe’s father, said that the greatest gift Zoe Clay gave to those around them — throughout their entire life — was their soul.

One of those people is Julie Pechanek, academic coordinator for the Classics department. Pechanek, who worked with Zoe when they were a work-study student.

“They…had such a bright future and were just so nice and positive all the time,” Pechanek said.

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From the interviews I conducted, it seems to me that it would be impossible to properly write an obituary for Zoe without including three Latin phrases: “per aspera ad astra,” “excelsior” and, of course, “pro humanitate.”

Per Aspera, Ad Astra

In Latin, the phrase “per aspera ad astra” (literally: through hardship to the stars) is taken to mean that the road to success is not always easy. Zoe’s road to success in running certainly was not, according to Bastron. Zoe sustained numerous injuries during their career at Wake Forest, and they could not train by running, as most runners do. They found a path to greatness anyway, including using biking and swimming to keep up with conditioning.

“We kind of figured out another path of how [they could] be great…,” Bastron said. “That required a lot of determination and dedication on their own because no one’s in the pool with you, and no one’s on the bike with you.”

According to Bastron, Zoe’s path to greatness resembled their life. 

“Zoe’s journey looked different, which is cool [because] Zoe lived their life differently than a lot of people,” Bastron said. “Just max enthusiasm, all in, never half-assed anything. It was like full send.”

They’re gritty. They’re tough. They’re resilient. They approach obstacles in life with two middle fingers and move on, and I think that is the narrative… they’d want to be remembered by.

— Madeleine Rehm, Zoe's Teammate

To Zoe’s former roommate and teammate Madeline Rehm — as well as Bastron — one moment in particular best demonstrated Zoe’s grit and determination. Zoe’s ultimate goal in college was to race a 10k; however, due to injuries, they did not qualify for the event at the ACC Championships. They decided to do a time trial the week before the championships, instead.

“No one wants to run 25 laps by themselves on the track [when] not in a race setting without competitors, [but] they were so excited to do it,” Bastron said. “And I was like, ‘Are you sure?… 10k is a long way by yourself.’”

Bastron remembered Zoe responding, “I said I was going to run a 10k this season. I haven’t done it yet. I can’t run it at ACCs next week. I want to run one.”

 As it turned out, Zoe would not be running alone — or, at least, not completely alone.

“Our whole team lined the track and cheered Zoe on for … probably 37 minutes,” Rehm said, “and that was just awesome. I think it showed how Zoe was doing [the run] for them, and it showed their resilience.” 

That resilience, Rehm said, was an example to others.

“They’re someone who always inspires you to be who you are,” Rehm said. “They’re gritty. They’re tough. They’re resilient. They approach obstacles in life with two middle fingers and move on, and I think that is the narrative… they’d want to be remembered by.”


“Excelsior,” or “higher” is a phrase that demands excellence. According to Bastron, it is an excellence Zoe found in their career as an athlete. However, athletics was not the only realm in which Zoe found success, according to Gellar-Goad. 

“They were always really sharp with their Latin skills but not sort of bragging about it,” Gellar-Goad said. “[They were] understated in their expertise, confident but friendly and supportive of others in the class.”

Gellar-Goad remembered one specific assignment in his Latin prose composition course that Zoe excelled at. The assignment involved arguing why someone should study Latin from three different perspectives  — fun, profit and virtue. 

“They made a box out of construction paper that had all these virtuous things outside that match the sort of standard old school rhetoric about why people should study Latin,” said Gellar-Goad, who also mentioned the project in an interview for the Old Gold & Black’s 2022 Graduation Tabloid. “And then you opened up the box, and there was a manifesto that was like a post-colonial colonialist critique of the older way of seeing Latin and seeing the ancient world and framing the classics.”

Gellar-Goad was floored.

“I was just blown away and really impressed and really touched by how carefully crafted and how critical and self-reflective that was, and that stuck with me…,” Gellar-Goad said. “I still have that on my shelf in my office today.”

Zoe lived their life differently than a lot of people. Just max enthusiasm, all in, never half-assed anything. It was like full send.

— Ashley Bastron, Assistant Cross Country/Track & Field Coach

After graduation, Zoe traded their running shoes for the world of biking. There, they met English Professor Dr. Jessica Richard at a Fourth of July bike ride.

Richard was a member of the biking group 0530, in which Zoe also found a vibrant community. 

“As I got to know some of the people in that group, I also got to spend more time with Zoe,” Richard said.

Richard was also part of a smaller group with three other woman bikers. The women invited Zoe to join them one day, and before long, the “bike mafia” was formed.

“[We] wanted to reflect that we were a group of non-male people,” Richard said of the group Zoe referred to as “the bike moms,” “and that’s…what that name meant for us.”

Richard remembers Zoe as a phenomenal biker, a fun-loving person and a strong support. 

“We did a really big, three-day ride, the five of us…from Winston[-Salem] to Asheville, and that was two nights overnight, and it was about 256 miles on bike, and it was hard and fun,” Richard said. “And…I was the weakest cyclist of the group, and they had just done another huge ride, like, the week before, on a different part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and [they were] just so strong and fun. There were a couple of moments where they would put their hand on my back and kind of push me up the hill as I was struggling to keep up with the group.” 

Richard said later of that moment: “It just felt like solidarity, care and attention. They’re so strong and could just kind of ride but also have their hand on my back and push me at the same time that they’re going up the mountain. It’s pretty impressive.”

For the biking community and the Wake Forest women’s cross country team, Zoe’s strength has been an inspiration as they contend with the 23-year-old’s tragic death. At a meet the Friday following Zoe’s death (in Zoe’s hometown of Charlottesville, Va.), the women’s cross country team had to wrestle with difficult emotions and difficult terrain. But, Rehm said, Zoe’s memory aided them.

“I think all of us showed up to the line ready to brace for Zoe,” Rehm said, “And [we were] thinking of them the whole time, like ‘Zoe would be so strong up these hills,’ ‘Zoe would be so strong finishing.’ And I think it honestly resulted in a lot of us having pretty [strong] races where we were trying to be tough like Zoe was.”

Zoe Clay (fourth from the right) poses with Coach Ashley Bastron and teammates (Courtesy of Ashley Bastron).

According to Bastron, the race was a huge success. In fact, the team ended up moving up a place in the rankings due to its strong performance.

“ I think overall [there is] an overwhelming desire to celebrate the legacy that Zoe left behind of…, ‘what does it mean to be tough?’ and ‘what does it mean to give your all?’” Bastron said, “and I got to see that this last weekend when they came through the race. Like, halfway through, the pain faces were way worse than normal, like [the team was] working…and that’s exactly what Zoe would have done.”

The women’s cross country team was not the only group to work through Zoe’s death via sport. Richard said the bike mafia had a ride to Asheville planned over Wake Forest’s fall break. There was talk after Zoe’s death of not doing the ride, but the group decided to persevere. 

“We didn’t do as much because we were all pretty exhausted from the week of just kind of processing [Zoe’s death,]” Richard said. “And there were a couple of places where we stopped that I remember we had stopped previously.”

One such place was a viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“It’s just a beautiful view, so there were moments where I just remembered them being there,” Richard said, “and you know, [the four of us] just had fun clowning around and looking out at the view and enjoying being on bikes together. And it was very sad to think that they couldn’t be there with us again.”

Pro Humanitate

Wake Forest’s motto calls its community to work pro humanitate, or “for humanity.” Zoe worked — throughout their time at Wake Forest and beyond — to foster community connection and support others.

“Zoe was so interconnected in so many different communities on campus and within Winston-Salem, and so that’s been cool to just hear from so many people whose lives were touched by Zoe,” Rehm said.

Gellar-Goad remembered that Zoe and one of their teammates, Elise Wright, gave him advice on how to sprint without pulling muscles. He also recalled a hike that Zoe, Wright and one other student went on the last day of the Spring 2022 semester.

“Every semester, I have on my syllabi instead of office hours, I say you can text me anytime, we can go to lunch or we can go hiking,” Gellar-Goad said. “And Zoe and Elise made sure that a hike happened for our three-person Latin prose composition class.”

Gellar-Goad remembered: “We went out to Pilot Mountain and did what ended up…being a nine-mile hike going into and past sunset. And it was just a fabulous time just being with them in nature, chatting with all of them, getting to watch Zoe and Elise climb on the rocks…and seeing them support their non-track-athlete classmate — who…six miles or seven miles in was like, ‘Oh boy, my hamstrings—’ and helping them out [with] making it through the last three miles.”

Pechanek remembered that Zoe’s comforting and kind presence helped set her mind at ease during the recovery process from a hip surgery.

“I just had a conversation with them about my experience with physical therapy and the recovery process, and they just made me feel much more at ease,” Pechanek said.

 Even in death, Zoe has given much to their community. In addition to the organs and skin grafts they donated, a GoFundMe organized by Richard for the family’s memorial costs has raised $75,736 from 800 individual donations. Many Wake Forest athletes and members of the biking community have donated and left messages. All money raised in excess of those costs, Richard said, will go to fund women’s and girls’ development in cycling. 

Members of Zoe’s biking community have also planned a memorial bike race, the GP Zoe Clay. The race will take place on Oct. 29, 2023 at 1411 Whitaker Ridge Dr., in Winston-Salem. Registration is still open. A celebration of life will also take place at the same address at 5 p.m. on Oct. 28. 

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