As the Olympic Trials are now being staged in Eugene, Ore. – a place where one-hundreds of a second lasts for a lifetime – all the talk Sunday was about a kid who had just finished third. Bryshon Nellum, who four years ago was told he may never walk again, ran 400 meters in 44.80 seconds to earn a spot in this summer’s London Olympics.
Four years ago, as he was leaving a Halloween Party at Southern Cal, he was mistakenly identified as a rival gang member – he’s never been in a gang in his life – and as two assailants shot him three times in the lean and muscular legs that brought him to USC, he ran and limped and jumped until he reached safety. “I never fell to the ground. It’s crazy, but I just kept going, hopping and skipping on one leg.
The beauty of the story – and the Olympics are chock full of miraculous versions of courage – is that Bryshon Nellum has kept skipping and jumping. He endured several surgeries – the last a year ago to remove bullet fragments from his hamstring tendon – and never, not once, did he take his eye off the fact that one day he would wear the Red, White and Blue in the Olympics.
There were other golden moments on Sunday. LaShawn Merritt, the 2008 gold medalist in the 400, was later banned for using performance drugs for 21 months but his time of 44.12 this weekend was “clean” and right now is the best in the world. Tony McQuay was second with a 44.49 so Nellum’s third place is less than a half-second difference.
And he was perfect fodder for the huge crush of writers who rushed him on the awards stand. "You know, when it happened I just put it all in God’s hands. It’s not my plan,” Nellum said quietly. “It’s His plan so I just feel like whatever happened, it happened for a reason and now I’m just trying to be a better person and a better athlete. I just think this all just made me stronger overall.”
There’s an interesting story of how Nellum, a high school sensation in California, came to grips with his tragedy.” I didn’t know who did it, so I went to see these guys (the shooters) and look them in eye and see who they were,” said Nellum, who attended every hearing and the trial. “My main thing was why?
“Why, why, why?” Bryshon has asked himself a thousand times. “But, after that, it was just like …. OK, this is behind me. As long as they get what they deserve, I’m just going to do what’s going to better me, and that was to continue running track.”
Last August the two thugs each pleaded guilty to one count of attempted murder and are currently serving 15-year sentences. This season Bryshon had his best year ever on the track, witnessed by his personal-best time on Sunday and the airplane ticket he now has for London as part of America’s team. ''It's been a long journey for me,'' he admitted. ''I finally had a healthy season. It's a blessing to be able to compete out here.''
Nellum said his mother was the reason he never gave up. "Of course, I had a lot of tough times," he was honest.. "It was hard coming back. I took it day by day and made the team. It's a dream come true, but without my mom … I don’t t know …She's been here from day one," Nellum smiled. "She's my No. 1 supporter. Without my mom, a lot of this wouldn't happen. I love you, Mom."
And what about his teammates, the guys who’ll share the thrills in London? Josh Mance, who ran with Bryshon at USC, finished fourth in the trials – right behind Nellum – and will probably be picked as a relay contender. "I just thank God, more than anything, that Bryshon made the team."
“No other athlete gets shot with a shotgun three times and runs 44.8. He's just a blessing," blurted the emotional Mance. "That's my bro and I'm so thankful for him. It's a blessing he made it."
Yes, it’s a marvelous blessing, so special that when Bryshon Nellum was rushed at the winner’s stand he broke it down just perfect – God bless him. “I’m here. I have the medal around my neck, I’ve got my team processing papers, got an American flag, got my flowers … so I guess it’s true."