Olympic Track & Field 2012: Bryshon Nellum Most Compelling Athlete in Men's 400m

Bryan Kalbrosky@@BryanKalbroskyCorrespondent IJuly 28, 2012

June 24, 2012; Eugene, OR, USA; Bryshon Nellum celebrates his 3rd place finish in the final men's 400m at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at Hayward Field. Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-US PRESSWIRE
Scott Olmos-US PRESSWIRE

With the Opening Ceremonies of the London Olympics in the books, my eyes will shift to 400-meter sprinter Bryshon Nellum of Team USA.

With every Olympics season, the media takes a focus to a few heartwarming stories that seem to drive the Internet and television into oblivion. Regardless of what the media hones in on this summer, I know that I’ll be watching Bryshon Nellum when he runs in the 400-meter dash and in the 400-meter relay for Team USA.

That’s a promise that the rest of the country ought to consider making as well.

My first encounter with Nellum came in Los Angeles, California roughly a week before the athletes were to begin competition in London. Nellum, born and raised in Southern California and now attending USC, was dining at the Italian restaurant that I bus tables at when I’m not writing about sports on the Internet.

The rhythm of a busboy is one filled with hectic chaos that ensures that the worker is more likely to fill up the water of every table in the restaurant than ever discover the identity of the patrons that they are serving.

The waiters, however, are paid to be a little more personable. 

When Nellum told his server who he was, he was soon greeted with a complimentary “good luck” cake and chants of “USA! USA! USA!” so loud that his face shone with pride. He was nice enough to pose for pictures with some of the restaurant employees, and was extraordinarily friendly with each of his encounters.

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Nellum and I briefly discussed Eugene, my college town, after I realized that he was likely just coming back from there with the trials. I promised that I’d be watching him, and told him that I was glad that my temporary home was able to serve him with such a remarkable honor.

After meeting Nellum, I falsely assumed that this would be the end of my fascination with the young athlete. This proved to be especially false. A quick Google search of his name showed me that there more depth to this story than I had ever imagined.

Nellum, as I soon realized, was a much bigger name than I thought. At fifteen years old, he was the fastest in the world for his age. He then became the first individual in the state of California to ever win 200- and 400-meter state title in back-to-back years. He held the record for the 200-meter that had been previously held for twenty years, and he was the first sprinter in almost one hundred years to have four winning efforts (400-meter, 200-meter and two relays) in a state meet.

Named as the Gatorade Track & Field Athlete of the Year in 2007, Nellum continued such prestigious honors when he was named All-USA by USA Today. He was the No. 1 high school sprinter in 2007, after narrowly beating Jahvid Best’s time of 20.65 records with a state-record time of 20.43 seconds.

Sitting at the top of the world, Nellum was focused on making it to the Olympics. He had previously won Gold at the 2006 World Junior Championships at Beijing for the 400 m, and also won Gold at the 2007 Pan American Junior Championships at the 400 m.

It seemed as if nothing would have been in his way.

Until suddenly it was 1:45 a.m. on the night of Halloween, and Nellum was coming home from a party near the USC campus in West Adams, Los Angeles. Nellum was showing a track-recruit around the area, when a car approached Nellum. In a case of supposed mistaken identity, an unidentified man hopped out of the car, aimed a gun at Nellum, and fired three bullets his way.

The two shooters turned out to be Travon Reed and Horasio Kimbrough, both identified gang members from neighborhoods close to where Nellum was born and raised.

"They didn't shoot him in the chest. They shot him in the leg," said coach Ron Allice. "That's no coincidence, in my opinion. That's jealousy. This guy's the track and field athlete of the year? Well, OK. You knock that guy out? Well, that's a badge of honor."

With all of the pain in the world on his body, Bryshon Nellum, shot in both legs (left quadriceps and right hamstring) found his way to the hospital.

“It’s crazy because I never did fall to the ground,” explained Nellum. “I kept going . . . just to run to safety. I hopped, skipped, jumped to safety. Ever since then, I’ve just been recovering.”

This was just another mark of triumph and unbearably impressive courage. After the initial surgery, Nellum was hospitalized for four months and was left unable to walk from his hospital bed to the bathroom.

“Like a baby, I had to crawl before I walked before I ran,” said Nellum.

The utter resilience and faith that he had to show to get back to this level is nothing short of an Olympic miracle.

"He was literally starting from ground zero, each time.  […] It's only been the last eight months that he's been pain-free since the shooting. We always set a goal, but we were always cautious,” his USC track coach Ron Allice said. “We literally took it day by day, year by year. What he had going for him is this amazing will to come back, each time.”

“Pretty good recovery,” joked the reporter.

“Great recovery,” exclaimed Nellum, showcasing a trademark smile that shines brighter now than ever before.

"This is a miracle based on desire, dedication and the will of that young man to come back," said Allice. "There have been a lot of setbacks and a lot of tears, but he's stronger now for what he's been through."

In a weird way, Allice is correct.

Nellum was given a bizarre second chance at life when he was forced to enter rehabilitation and recovery. As unexpected as the incident may have been, Nellum was offered a new perception to the sport that he loved most of all. Once he realized that he could walk again, Nellum gained new insight into the passion that he had for track and field.

"The doctors couldn't promise anything," Nellum said. "They basically told me, 'You'll be able to walk again but we don't think you'll ever have the world-class speed you had before.' That was motivation for me. Once I knew I was going to be able to walk, I told myself I was going to do whatever it takes to get back to a high level."

In Eugene, Oregon on June 24th, Nellum completed a 44.80 second final 400-meter run that placed him in third and earned him a spot on the Olympic team. It was his personal best time ever, and the first time that he completed in less than 45 seconds.

"When I realized I finished third, that's when all the emotions and feelings came out," said Nellum. "Everything I went through made me want it more and made me more appreciative of making the team."

Since the incident, Nellum had been forced to undergo surgery every year of his recovery.

“Of everybody at the Olympic Trials, he has the best story, the most inspirational,” said USC teammate Josh Mance. “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.”

To look at three gunshot wounds through the legs and declare that it made you a stronger individual is the most beautiful response that an athlete can have, and it’s exactly what Nellum was able to decide.

As a reward, he now sports an American flag and flowers, the official presentation of the full-circle that he has come as an athlete and as an American.