EUGENE, Ore. — Stunned after he was shot three times in the legs as he left a party near the USC campus, fearful that he might not walk again much less run at a world-class level, Bryshon Nellum’s instinctive thought was to continue moving.
“It’s crazy because I never did fall to the ground. I kept going, just to run to safety,” said Nellum, who was targeted by two gang members who mistook him for a rival in the early hours of Oct. 31, 2008. “I hopped and skipped on one leg to safety. And ever since then I’ve just been recovering.”
That process was slowed by three operations, the last on his left hamstring last August. But he reached a pinnacle on Sunday when he finished third in the men’s 400-meter race at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in a personal-best 44.80 seconds and earned a berth on the London Olympic team.
“I’m here, I have the medal around my neck, I’ve got team processing papers, got an American flag, got my flowers,” he said, “so I guess it’s true.”
Most major track competitions provide compelling examples of returns, redemptions and rewards.
For LaShawn Merritt, the 2008 Olympic 400-meter gold medalist, winning the trials race Sunday in a world-leading 44.12 seconds was redemption after a 21-month drug ban. “It’s a great birthday present for myself,” said Merritt, who will be 26 on Wednesday.
For Athens 100-meter gold medalist Justin Gatlin, winning the 100 on Sunday in 9.80 seconds confirmed his return to the top after a four-year drug ban. He will be joined in London by Tyson Gay (9.86) and Ryan Bailey (9.93).
And for Sanya Richards-Ross, winning the women’s 400 and tying the U.S. Olympic trials record with a world-best time of 49.28 seconds was a payoff for diligence and consistent excellence. Richards-Ross, who plans to double in the 200, will be joined in the 400 by Dee Dee Trotter, who was second in 50.02 seconds, and Francena McCorory, third in 50.43.
But no story had the impact of Nellum’s passage from a hospital bed back to the track to fulfill the potential he showed as a prep star at Long Beach Poly High.
“You know what they say, what doesn’t break you makes you stronger,” Nellum said after a late rush brought him to the Hayward Field finish line behind Merritt and Tony McQuay (44.49) and just ahead of USC teammate Josh Mance.
“So I just feel like whatever happened, it happened for a reason and now I’m just trying to be a better person and be a better athlete. I think this all just made me stronger overall.”
Two admitted gang members pleaded no contest to one count each of attempted murder last August and were sentenced to 15 years in state prison. Nellum said he attended every phase of the legal process.
“I didn’t know who did it, so I went to see these guys and look them in the eyes and see who were they, why it happened,” he said. “My main thing was just why. Why, why, why? But after that it was just like OK, I put it all behind me. As long as they get what they deserve, I’m just going to do what’s going to better me, and that’s to continue on running track.”
Gatlin, 30, celebrated his victory by carrying his young son on his shoulders on the track. “I’ve heard a lot of words over the past year or so. My road. Redemption. My journey,” he said. “I was just sticking to what I know — being a fast runner, breaking it down to its simplest form and just competing.”
Gay, hampered by injuries since beating Olympic and world-record holder Usain Bolt of Jamaica in 2010, said it was far from his best race, but he is optimistic he will improve. “I feel real good about my chances,” he said.
No one felt better Sunday than Nellum. “Like a baby I had to crawl before I walked, before I ran,” he said of his recovery. “This is a dream come true.”