By: Joe Battaglia, NBC Olympics
EUGENE, Ore. – – Bryshon Nellum had the world at his feet.
More accurately he had the world at his legs, which carried him to a record-setting track career at Long Beach Poly High School and to the cusp of collegiate stardom.
But all was nearly lost in an instant of senseless violence in the early morning hours of Halloween in 2008. Nellum was walking home from a party on 29th Street and Vermont Avenue near the USC campus when a car pulled alongside him, a gang slogan was yelled out, and he was shot in the legs.
The shotgun blast hit Nellum once in each thigh and in his right hamstring. At that moment he wasn’t thinking about saving his track career. He thought about saving his life.
“I never really fell to the ground,” Nellum recalled. “I hopped up and down on one leg to get away and to get to safety.”
Fast forward four years as Nellum summoned a sense of urgency as he came down the home straight of the men’s 400m at Hayward Field. This time, the 23 year old was racing away his past and toward fulfilling the lifelong goal that was nearly taken from him.
“Of everybody at the Olympic Trials, he has the best story, the most inspirational,” Mance, who ran 44.88, said. “He should be the headliner of this whole meet. No track athlete gets shot with a shotgun and has three bullets go through both legs and is still out there running 44.8s. He’s a blessing.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, which he said included the first of several surgeries – he had his most recent last August – as well as countless doctor visits, police interviews, and hours of pain and wondering.
“Why did the gunmen single me out?”
“Am I ever going to walk again?”
The answer to Nellum’s second question came quickly, but doctors told him that he would never reach the world-class potential he showed in becoming the first high school athlete in 91 years to win four titles at the California state championships.
“I told myself, ‘If I can walk again, I will run again.’”
His rehabilitation was intense and included a regimen of stretching exercises, weight lifting, balance training, daily ice baths and painful muscle kneading to minimize the scar tissue. The process was slow but Nellum was determined to get back on the track, which he did at the USC-UCLA dual meet on May 1, 2010, where he finished second in 46.31.
“I was running for a while in practice on one leg,” he said. “I was like a baby. I had to learn how to crawl before I learned how to walk before I learned how to run. I had a lot of rough times. It was hard coming back. I just kept my faith in God and took things day by day. I stayed consistent and I stayed dedicated.”
But he continued to ask himself why me.
According to the Los Angeles Times, in February of 2009 two L.A. gang members, Travon Reed andHorasio Kimbrough, were arrested and charged with attempted murder. The pre-trial hearings and court case dragged on for nearly three years, before each man was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Nellum said he went to court each day, not to testify, but seeking answers.
“I didn’t know who did it so I wanted to see these guys, look them in the eye, and see why this happened,” Nellum said. “My main thing was why, why, why? I didn’t get any answers. After that, I put it all behind me. As long as they got what they deserved I was going to do what betters me and that’s running track.”
In 2011, Nellum finished third at the Pac-10 Championship meet. This season, he won Pac-12s in 45.20. With his focus on the Trials, Nellum did not run well at the NCAA Championship meet, finishing fifth in his heat of the 400m and failing to advance to the final, which was won by McQuay. But a match-up with the 2011 U.S. champion from Florida in the 4x400m relay reinvigorated Nellum’s spirit.
That confidence carried over to this meet, where Nellum found himself matched up with Merritt, the reigning Olympic champion, in every race, a test he said that he relished.
“That anchor leg that I ran against McQuay at NCAAs brought my body to another level,” he said. “I worked on that when I went back to practice. Then going through these rounds here with LaShawn Merritt. I was in the prelims with him, in the semifinals with him and then the final. That helped me make it through.”
The test for Nellum now becomes a major step up in competition at the Games. Merritt termed it “big-boy running.” Regardless of his outcome in London, Nellum is grateful to have this experience.
“I slept through it. I dreamt it. I ate it. I woke up with it. I ran through it. I came a long way,” Nellum said. “They say what doesn’t break you makes you stronger. I just feel like whatever happened, happened for a reason.
“This is a dream come true.”
Source: NBC Olympics
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