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BILL DWYRE

Shot heard 'round the track world hasn't stopped USC star Nellum

A shotgun blast to the legs didn't keep Bryshon Nellum from a silver medal at the London Olympics. He will compete Saturday at the USC-UCLA dual meet.

April 26, 2013|Bill Dwyre
  • Bryshon Nellum and the Bahamas' Chris Brown compete in a men's 4X400m relay heats during the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 9, 2012.
Bryshon Nellum and the Bahamas' Chris Brown compete in a men's… (Oliver Morin / Getty Images )

The Olympics have come and gone for Bryshon Nellum. So has the pain in his legs that made his success in London last summer so amazing.

His story was seized upon, correctly so, by much of the media in London, even non-U.S. outlets. After all, even in something as huge as the Olympics, how many athletes win a silver medal in a track event after being shot in the legs and told by doctors they'd never again be a world-class runner? More so, how many carry their country's flag in the closing ceremony?

"That stands above everything else," Nellum says. "It's above any medal, gold, silver. Just think about the millions in your country and you are carrying their flag. It's a medal of its own."

His story is also evolving.

It is built against the frightening backdrop of a USC track star, just 19, crossing a street near campus on Halloween night 2008 and suddenly being hit with a shotgun blast in both legs.

The blur goes from a thump in his legs to running from the scene.

"The adrenaline kicked in," he says.

It continues with his collapse a short distance away, then suddenly the sight of paramedics and an ambulance.

"They patrol that area (28th Street and Vermont Avenue) at a night, and they were there, right away," he says.

His journey reaches its temporarily demoralizing conclusion a few days later in the hospital, when doctors say he would probably run again, but not at world-class levels he had already achieved in the 200 and 400 meters.

"I was watching USC football on TV, our homecoming," he says. "I had one resolve when they said that: 'I'll show you.' "

He has, but not quickly, easily or painlessly.

The track season of 2009 was a lost cause. Nellum redshirted.

The track season of 2010 was amazingly successful, considering he was running with pellets in his legs. So was 2011, until NCAA preliminary rounds in the spring when, in mid-race, he collapsed. One of the fragments had worked its way to a nerve in his groin.

A few months later, in consultation with longtime track coach Ron Allice, Nellum had a risky third surgery. With a nerve specialist assisting, more pellets were removed. The success of that procedure was not discernible until the Olympic trials in June.

Three weeks before, he had failed to even make the final in the NCAA 400. In the Olympic trials, he squeezed out a spot on the U.S. team by placing third in the 400 by 0.03 of a second, then ran the leadoff leg in London as the U.S. took silver behind the Bahamas in the 1,600 relay.

"You walk into this massive stadium, you look around and you can't believe it," Nellum says. "You're in the starting blocks, the place is filled, and you can hear a pin drop. Then you make it to the victory stand and tell yourself, 'You did it.' "

The shotgun pellets aren't the only thing that stayed with him. Nellum remains haunted. Why the shooting? Why him?

The shooters were caught and brought to trial. Their names are Travon Reed and Horasio Kimbrough, alleged gang members. Nellum, a star athlete at Long Beach Poly High in football and track, says he never had gang connections.

"I was wearing all black that night," he says. "No gang colors."

When Reed and Kimbrough went to trial, Nellum had to see. He went to the preliminary hearing and the sentencing.

"I wanted to know why, what was the story," he says. "They walked in, two black guys, wearing blue prison suits. I looked them in the eye. I wanted to rip their heads off their shoulders. They looked back. I think I saw sorrow, some regret."

Reed and Kimbrough were each sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempted murder. USC students, and the general track community, lit up Internet message boards in indignation over perceived leniency.

Nellum looked the past in the face and ended up on an Olympic medal stand. That could have been the answer, the grand finale. But Nellum runs on, scar tissue and all.

He stayed at USC after the Olympics, with a one-year eligibility extension from the NCAA. He got his degree in public administration and kept competing, working toward a master's degree.

Saturday is the USC-UCLA dual meet at the Trojans' Cromwell Field, and he'll be one of the stars.

Then there will be the Pac-12 meet, the NCAA meet and qualifying for the World Championships in Moscow in August. After the NCAA competition, he will be a pro, able to collect endorsements and appearance fees on the lucrative European track circuit, where, unlike the U.S., the sport still flourishes.

He may try pro football. He may focus on the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

"I'm still climbing," says the man who turns 24 on May 1 and is lucky to be walking.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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