SB Nation

Pedro Moura | December 12, 2012

Something else under the sun

Bryshon Nellum's improbable comeback from gunshot wounds, and how he changed perceptions along the way

There are seven seats in the living room-sized lobby of Dr. Craig Dossman Jr.’s office in Long Beach, Calif., a popular coastal city located 25 miles southwest of Los Angeles.

One afternoon last winter, American Olympic sprinter Bryshon Nellum sat in one of them as he awaited an appointment with Dossman, his preferred physical therapist for most of the last decade.

Nellum’s girlfriend was sitting in the seat directly to his right. To his left was a side table covered with the typical doctor's office assortment of magazines and a few photo albums filled with shots of Dossman's work-related travels and more famous clients.

On the other side of the table sat a woman and her teenage daughter, Long Beach residents early for their first visit to the office, the only other people in the room besides the receptionist. The woman casually scanned the albums and pointed out the occasional photo to her daughter.

On the first page of one was a picture of Dossman with O.J. Mayo, the first-round NBA draftee. On the second page was a photo of a young runner with a big smile on his face and four gold medals around his neck. The woman recognized the athlete in the picture.

"That's Bryshon Nellum," she told her daughter, as Nellum sat not five feet away. "He went up to USC but got into some trouble and got shot.”

“He messed everything up for himself.”

The woman was half-right.

Bryshon Nellum

The athlete in the photo was Bryshon Nellum, and he did go on to USC after graduating from Long Beach Polytechnic High, where he was one of the most-decorated American prep athletes in recent history, winning back-to-back state titles in the 200- and 400-meter sprints, performing as a star wide receiver in football and being named the Gatorade Track & Field Athlete of the Year in 2007. He also did get shot – in his legs – while in college. Five blocks away from campus, in fact. He was leaving a local nightclub after entertaining a recruit on Halloween Eve 2008 when a man jumped out of a car near him and pulled the trigger on a shotgun once. Three pellets made contact with their target, careening through his legs and causing immediate, irreversible damage to Nellum’s most valuable assets.

Three pellets made contact with their target, careening through his legs and causing immediate, irreversible damage.

He did not, however, do anything to get in trouble or mess anything up besides be a world-class sprinter with an active social life. The two men convicted for that night’s events, gang members Travon Reed and Horasio Kimbrough, were arrested in February 2009 on charges of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years in state prison in August 2011. Although some close to Nellum maintain he was targeted for being a successful sprinter, police believe the shooters mistook Nellum for a rival gang member.

As Nellum sat in the waiting room, all of this went through his head in a matter of seconds. The woman then looked at him, realized who he was and apologized profusely. He nodded graciously.

Dossman walked into the lobby and called Nellum’s name. As Nellum rose from his seat, he told the woman not to worry – he was used to the misconceptions – and walked in to begin another day of work rehabilitating his damaged legs.

Nellum was six months removed from a third surgery to extract shotgun pellets and six months away from the all-important 2012 Olympic trials. He didn’t have the time to worry about other people’s opinions. The London Olympics – these Olympics – had been his goal since he was in high school, well before a shotgun blast to his legs messed everything up. Having finally conquered the subsequent self-doubt he battled for years, he was determined to spend the next half-year ensuring those opinions would be reversed.

Now 23, Nellum looks exactly like what you’d expect an elite sprinter to look like.

Slim and sleek, he looks back at you with elongated cheekbones, close-cropped hair, diamond-stud earrings and a chinstrap beard. His biceps and triceps have been clearly defined since he was in the 10th grade. His legs have always been skinny, especially below his knees.

Above his knees are scars from the shooting, present on both legs but more noticeable on the left. There’s one in the shape of a shotgun shell on his left thigh and two smaller hole-shaped ones on the hamstring behind it. Doctors could never do anything about the scars. They tried just about everything on the pellet fragments lodged inside his legs, though – removing as much as possible in initial surgery in the hours following the shooting and taking more and more risks in later attempts in August 2010 and 2011.

Even now, he has lingering nerve damage in his legs that’ll never go away. Pain rushes throughout his lower half every time he ices down after a workout. Doctors have told him there will always be smaller pellet fragments that they’ll be unable to remove without taking on significant risk. As recently as last June, Nellum maintained he’d quit track permanently if he had to undergo another shooting-related surgery. That’s because each time he went under the knife, months of arduous rehab followed.

After the shooting, he was first confined to a wheelchair for two months. Then he took to crutches. Eventually, he was allowed to walk. Just short of a year after the initial incident, in October 2009, he began lightly jogging.

He finished his first individual collegiate event for USC on his 21st birthday on May 1, 2010, and earned second place in the 400-meter sprint, his specialty. It was, remarkably, the first time he’d ran to a stopwatch since the shooting, but it was a disappointment; his time of 46.31 seconds was almost a full second slower than his high school best, 45.38. Later that month, he tried the 400 again at NCAA Regionals. Needing to approach his career-best time to qualify for the nationals, he overexerted himself, dislodged the pellet fragments still in his leg and wound up running even slower: 47.05 seconds. Then, with his season potentially over, he skipped the four-man 400 relay the next day. His teammates stepped up and qualified without him.

Two weeks later, having shown signs of life in practice, Nellum led off the relay in the NCAA championships on the University of Oregon campus. But he barely finished his lap around the track – by the halfway point he was hobbling in pain, and he handed off the baton to his teammate in last place.

Doctors later told him that pellet fragments in his left leg dislodged themselves as he ran that day and touched his nerves. He had his second surgery two months later to remove all the pieces the doctors could get without digging in too deep and causing even more damage.

The next May, after going through a condensed version of the same rehab process, Nellum raced in the individual 400 meter race at the NCAA Regionals, also held on Oregon’s campus in Eugene. Once again, he pulled up with more pain in his legs halfway through his lap around the track. Three months later, with London less than a year away, he underwent surgery a third time.

“Just when you got to the threshold of being back, it would give out again.”

“It was like a tease,” says Nellum’s coach at USC, septuagenarian Ron Allice. “Just when you got to the threshold of being back, it would give out again.”

Nellum will later say without hesitation that the lowest moment of his prolonged recovery process was not any of the surgeries. It wasn’t the hours of daily physical therapy he endured to remove scar tissue or the unnerving tingling he still gets up and down his legs when he ices after a workout.

It was doubt. Self-doubt, mostly.

For the first time in his life, Nellum was unsure of himself as an athlete, and, correspondingly, as a person, because his athletic ability had long defined him. Now, circumstances led him to feel something foreign to him. What had he done to deserve his fate? What could he do to reverse it?

“I never really knew the feeling of doubt before I got shot,” Nellum says now. “I was confident in whatever I did, whichever race it was, whoever I was running against.”

That confidence would evade him for some time, despite his earnest pursuit.

“Bryshon’s road has never been like this,” Allice says, slowly and steadily bringing his right hand from the edge of his office desk up and out to the top of his head, drawing out an imaginary diagonal line.

“It’s been more like this,” he says, starting his hand at the same height before plunging it downward rapidly to form a curve and repeating that a few times. “And this, this gets grueling.”

Interestingly, in the latter demonstration Allice’s hand ends up higher.

In the spring of 2011, when he thought he was done with serious medical operations forever and the path to London was clear, Nellum regularly talked about a helmet he wore during training to help protect him from the outside world.

It was, of course, a figurative helmet. He wasn’t actually running with headgear.

But the imaginary protection worked for him in many ways, shielding him in the most basic sense from minor setbacks and hits to his pride that occurred regularly during the recovery while also keeping him focused on the task at hand.

And it worked. He continued to improve that spring until his injury. His goal was to redirect every thought he had about the shooting – any “Why’d-this-happen-to-me?” business – to London.

He did a pretty good job. The Twitter account he created in 2009 used to include daily notes on classes, girls and other typical college-athlete thoughts. By the spring of ’11, he rarely tweeted – except to say “#London2012” or “London on my mind.” The helmet was in full force.

London 2012 Olympics

“It’s not coming off,” Nellum said back then, only a few weeks before the injury that led to his last surgery, “until I have some time to kick my feet up.”

On the day pictured in the photo in Dr. Dossman’s office, the day he won four gold medals in his senior year of high school, Nellum didn’t need any sort of helmet.

Back then, he was essentially invincible. Or he felt that way, at least. And acted like it. In his green Poly uniform with his hair bleached blond – he laughs at the thought now – he would routinely beat kids by two or three seconds in the 400 sprint, by margins as comically wide as 20 or 30 meters.

Even in the USA Track and Field junior nationals that year, he beat everybody else by almost a full second.

By the final 100 meters of most of his races, the PA announcer would begin to recount his awards and honors and add his latest victory to it. It wasn’t worth trying to pretend there was any drama remaining.

“You shouldn’t even be allowed to run track. A gang member on a college track team?”

One month before the Olympic trials, members of USC’s track and field team are de-boarding their plane at the tiny one-terminal airport in Eugene. They’ve flown in for the Pac-12 championships beginning the next day, an important event for individuals hoping to later challenge for national honors.

An older Oregon Ducks fan is waiting, by himself, at the Trojans’ gate. Once he spots Nellum walking off and recognizes him as the sprinter who got shot, he begins the public berating. Nellum notices, obviously, but doesn’t do or say anything, walking right past without a sideways glance.

Tina Fernandes, a USC assistant coach, quickly approaches the outspoken Oregon supporter and demands that he stop.

“He got shot,” the man responds, much louder. “If you get shot, you must be doing something bad.”

Fernandes tells him off, saying he has no idea what he’s talking about. Eventually, the man walks away.

“He just assumed that he was in a gang because he was shot,” Fernandes says later, shaking her head. “Bryshon has worked hard to change what people think of him. To still be perceived as the guy who got shot instead of the guy that he is is a shame.”

You can sense it in Fernandes’ words: She knows what it feels like to be openly and unfairly judged. She grew up in Compton, perhaps the most notoriously crime-ridden city in America. Countless times in her life, she says, she’s had positive initial interactions with people only to notice them literally and figuratively take a step back when she mentions it.

Even on recruiting trips, she finds the where-are-you-from conversation troublesome. The teenage athletes she’s trying to get to come to USC don’t typically respond well to her hometown.

“They get scared,” she says. “When I first introduce myself, it’s great. And then I get into my background and everybody stops talking.”

Most of the time, Fernandes finds that people come back around on her second or third visits. But Nellum, she points out, often doesn’t have that kind of time to show skeptics the truth.

His interactions are typically much more fleeting.

Three days after the airport incident, in what still counts as the biggest victory of his career, Nellum edged nemesis Mike Berry of Oregon in the individual 400 to win the Pac-12 conference championship.

As he tends to do, Nellum fell behind Berry at the start, but ran a lethal final 100 meters to overtake the defending champion. The elderly fan from the airport was almost assuredly in attendance for the day’s events, a fact that wasn’t lost on Nellum. In retrospect, teammates say the look of quiet determination present on his face from the airport all the way to the finish line was a preview of the look he would sport in the final stretch of his run at the Olympic trials.

There’s a certain single-mindedness that’s necessary to reach elite status in most earthly pursuits. It’s of even greater importance in athletics, where the physical strain is immense and the potential distractions are infinite. And many believe it’s even more exacting in the sport of sprinting, where years are sometimes spent preparing for a few seconds of secluded, solitary competition.

“It’s just me out there with my decisions and my thoughts,” Nellum says. “You have to take what everybody’s taught you, all the love and all the support and all the criticism and all the hardship, and let it all permeate through you.”

Now that the stakes are so high and the margins for victory are so slim, all of that is necessary for Nellum to succeed. He loves the feeling of control that he has on the track, a feeling that he didn’t truly appreciate until it was taken away from him in the shooting. He’s had to learn to treat every margin seriously since.

“That’s why I know Bryshon’s strong-minded,” Mance says. “Track and field is an individual sport. All you have is your mind.

“And, sometimes, your mind can get you further than you think.”

This time, Bryshon Nellum crouched, clenched his hands and looked to the sky in disbelief. Here he was, at the Olympic trials in Eugene, and now he was going to the Olympics. He couldn’t quite believe it.

Similar gestures are standard practice for today’s athletes, who commonly credit higher powers for their on-field achievements. Upon experiencing success, they often acknowledge their faith by pointing upwards or executing some other pious gesture, saying later that they knew all along that their beliefs would lead them to their goal.

Now he was going to the Olympics. He couldn’t quite believe it.

Nellum often does something of the sort, too, lifting his arms to the sky after each of his races to represent his trust in God. But when he crouched on the track in Eugene, Oregon this past June, he didn’t do it because he always thought he’d be there. He did so triumphantly, as if to express both gratitude and amazement at the same time. And both were warranted.

Like most elite 400-meter runners, Nellum is a closer. He doesn’t start his races incredibly fast, but he keeps up his pace better than most and then quickens it in the final quarter better than almost anybody.

That’s what he did at the trials. With 100 meters remaining, he was in seventh place, well behind the leaders and the third-place finish needed to guarantee a spot in Olympic competition. Then he started to go crazy, passing David Verburg with about 75 meters left and then Brady Gehret four strides later. With 50 meters to go Nellum was still in fifth place and several strides behind Manteo Mitchell and USC teammate Josh Mance.

But those two were fading. Nellum was still rising.

He ran the last eighth of the race faster than ever before and, in a field featuring the last two Olympic gold medalists, significantly faster than anyone else on the track. He pumped past Mitchell with a striking amount of ease and outlasted Mance a few feet away from the finish line. The facial contortions Nellum made near the end alternated between pain and joy, and the look he sported for the three seconds until he knew his official time after the race was proud, anxious and exhausted all wrapped into one.

Ultimately, he finished in third, eight-hundredths of a second in front of Mance, who still went on to London as an alternate. Nellum’s official time of 44.80 seconds ended up beating his personal best by nearly four-tenths of a second, an abnormally large margin of improvement for an elite sprinter.

So, after all the harrowing surgeries, all the taxing recoveries and the brutal re-injuries – both of which had occurred on the very track he was standing on – Nellum had officially qualified to represent the U.S. in the 2012 Olympic Games.

“Whatever happened, it happened for a reason,” Nellum told reporters following the race. It sounded like he was coming to conclusions as he spoke, realizing in his post-race ecstasy that his nervous, skeptical thoughts from the past four years had simultaneously been erased.

Said Dossman, who watched the race in person: “I’m not a religious person, but I really feel like something supernatural happened that day. Because that was something impossible that I saw. I feel like something literally picked him up and pushed him, because what happened at the end was just magical.”

Mance, three years younger than Nellum but similarly talented, had a telling reaction to his teammate’s success, even though it came at his own expense.

“I feel like, out of everyone at the Olympic trials, he has the best story, the most inspirational,” Mance told reporters while still panting in the mixed zone after the race. “He should be the headline of this whole entire event. A track athlete gets shot with a shotgun, three bullets through your leg, and is still running 44.8’s.

“Who do you know who can do that?”

Bryshon Nellum only won a silver medal in the London Olympics. He’s not too happy about it.

He ran a good-enough opening leg on the 4x400 relay team and handed the baton off to Mance right in the thick of the race. Mance and Tony McQuay then put the Americans well ahead before veteran Angelo Taylor ran a lackluster anchor leg and lost the advantage to the team from the Bahamas.

Nellum and Mance, roommates in the Olympic Village, don’t blame Taylor for the loss, the first by the U.S. in the event in 60 years. Nellum and Mance blame injuries to Manteo Mitchell and top American LaShawn Merritt, among others, and odd decision-making by national team coach Andrew Valmon, who chose the 33-year-old Taylor over younger candidates for his experience and watched his decision blow up in front of him.

“It’s like, ‘Aaaaah,’” Nellum says, clenching his fists while recounting the event.

But a silver medal’s still a silver medal. Or so Nellum keeps telling himself. And people keep telling him.

“Yeah, I see what you’re saying,” he tells them. “I accept the fact that I got a silver medal is a good thing. But I wanted that gold.”

Really, Nellum’s imaginary helmet is still on. The time to kick his feet up for an extended period has not yet arrived. One silver medal in one Olympics is decidedly insufficient, and the fact that he was a longshot to even get there is still wholly irrelevant to him. That is, perhaps, a measure of how far he has come.

One silver medal in one Olympics is decidedly insufficient.

The same goals Nellum had for London are now aimed firmly on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the site of the 2016 Olympics. He took only about a month off after returning to L.A. before resuming light training in early October, and he doesn’t plan to cut back on that anytime soon.

In the individual 400 competition in London, Nellum got to the semifinals but missed qualifying for the final by .03 seconds with a time of 45.02 seconds. He still finished as the top American in the 51-man field.

His 44.80 time from trials would have netted him a fifth-place finish. But, even a month afterward, he still sounds much more peeved about the relay than the individual.

“It’s better when you have control,” Nellum says. “When you control something, you control the credit or the blame.

“When it’s in somebody else’s hands, it’s frustrating.”

Bryshon Nellum

For a long time, Nellum felt out of control. He felt like his shooters – gangbangers or not, in jail or not – controlled a large portion of his life. But silver medal or not, he’s clearly in control now.

It’s up to him whether to turn pro or run one more season at USC, which he’ll likely have the opportunity to do in the spring once the NCAA rules on his application for a previous medical redshirt. He’s taking his final three college classes this fall for his public administrations degree: real estate law, advanced finance and public policy analysis.

“If I’m Bryshon, there’s no way in the world I’m coming back in the spring,” Mance says, with an emphasis on the word ‘world.’ “There’s no way.”

Nellum seems less sure. Before he qualified for London, he indicated he’d be done with college track if he made the Olympics. Once he got back to the States, he had second thoughts. With a good performance at the NCAA championships, he believes he could increase the sum he could earn as a professional.

The most lucrative competitions are after the collegiate season, anyway, so it’s conceivable he could run his final season in college and still run in Europe next summer. But there’s always the risk of another injury, especially with the fast-paced schedule that would require. The nerve damage and pellet fragments still in his legs aren’t going away.

So he’s still weighing his options.

“I know it’s gonna happen,” Nellum says in September. “The money’s gonna be there. It’s just a matter of time now.

“I’ve been patient. I can be patient a little longer.”

There’s an eye-catching inspirational poster hanging directly to the right of Allice’s desk in his office on the USC campus.

Beneath a black-and-white photograph of a solitary runner approaching mountainous terrain, a word is written in big white font above a sentence in smaller text on the next line.

“D-E-T-E-R-M-I-N-A-T-I-O-N,” reads the top line.

‘The race is not always to the swift,” the smaller text reads below, “but to those who keep on running.”

An author is not cited, but the quote is a reference to a verse in the Old Testament.

“I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

– Ecclesiastes 9:11, The Bible, New International Version

Chance certainly happened to Bryshon Nellum. Whether or not the men who shot him knew who he was, the shooting that night was a matter of chance, something over which Nellum had no control, as was the fact that he was hit in the legs and not the chest or the head.

Time can also work in one’s favor, even when it delivers silver and not gold. Nellum knows that now.

A few days after Nellum arrives back in Los Angeles from London, he learns some of the positive effects of time. Walking to his car near the USC campus, he notices a mom and her 13- or 14-year-old daughter looking at him as they approach. It's not the same two at the doctor's office last winter, but, for some reason, he thinks of them. As they’re about to cross paths, the woman stops and, with an inquisitive look, asks if he ran in the Olympics.

She makes no mention of any shooting, guns or gangs. Nellum smiles.

“Yes ma’am,” he says, nodding and giving his thanks for her support before continuing on walking.

He smiles even bigger a few seconds later when he reaches his car and processes what happened: He has made progress. It might be the first time in four years he has been recognized as anything other than the guy who got shot.

“They actually know who I am now,” Nellum says. “I’m not just some story.”

Looking back now, Nellum's confident, fulfilled viewpoint is reflective of what's happened to him since the shooting, although not because of it.

“They actually know who I am now, I’m not just some story.”

He’s won an Olympic medal and been chosen by his countrymen to carry the American flag in the closing ceremonies. He’s received contract offers from major shoe companies and tossed around movie ideas with entertainment executives. He’s met President Obama and paraded through the streets of his hometown on a truck bed with his feet fully kicked up.

He kept on running – with his helmet on – and did what he was determined to do. And, in reinventing himself, he found something else under the sun.

He thinks back to the woman in Dossman’s office. “If she knew what I’ve really done,” he says now, “I bet you she wouldn’t say anything negative.

“I bet you she’d say, ‘This guy is incredible.’ ”

About the Author

Pedro Moura is a journalist living in Los Angeles. He's covered USC football and the Los Angeles Clippers for since 2009 and also writes freelance pieces, including for the New York Times. He enjoys reading and learning about food, film and baseball.