Bryshon Nellum had every excuse to be upset with his performance Wednesday.
It had taken his entire college career to get to the NCAA championships. Yet when he finally got there this week as the Pac-12 champ in the 400 meters, the strain on the final stretch of the preliminary race showed on the Southern Califonia senior’s face throughout the final straightaway. He ran more than two-tenths of a second slower than his Pac-12 winning time and missed the final. Many athletes would’ve felt let down.
But for Nellum, who will run in Southern Cal’s 4×400-meter relay on Thursday with another chance to win a national championship, this was already a victory. Getting to Des Moines without the pain of bullet fragments rubbing against the nerves in both thighs and hamstrings — the remains of a gang attack nearly four years earlier — was an achievement his doctors never expected him to make.
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“Of course I wanted more,” Nellum said after finishing 12th in the 400. “Of course I wanted to make the finals. But in all my years of college, this is my first NCAA. I’m just glad to be here. Pain free.”
These moments were expected five years ago, when Nellum came to USC as the 2007 National Track Athlete of the Year at Long Beach Poly. But for so many years the great expectations kept bumping into the worst luck.
First Nellum pulled his hamstring so severely in his first collegiate race that he had to miss the rest of his freshman season. Then that fall, as he walked to his car after leaving a restaurant near campus, two gang members mistook Nellum for one of their rivals. They blasted both of his legs with a shotgun, littering his hamstrings and quadriceps with bullet fragments.
He underwent surgery and missed the entire 2009 season, but doctors left behind bullet fragments that were close to his nerves, afraid of damaging them in the process. For the greater benefit of preserving his ability to walk normally, USC coach Ron Allice said, the doctors believed they likely took away his ability to ever match the 45.3-second speed he was posting in the 400 meters before the shooting.
“I felt lost for a minute,” Nellum said. “It’s been a struggle. I just went through the process, kept faith and I was able to overcome.”
But overcoming was a constant battle, and the times and high finishes don’t reflect the intensity of his struggles.
At first, breaking 46 seconds in the 400 and finishing third in the conference championship was considered a success. By 2011 he’d cut it down to 45.56. But whenever Nellum would try to dig down for a higher gear the bullet fragments would brush against his nerves. The agony could be paralytic. Each spring his season ended in the NCAA regionals because of pain, not ability. Last year, it dropped him to the track in the middle of the 400.
“He went flat down on his face,” Allice said of that race. “It kept moving around. And when it would move around it would just land on the nerve, and he would lose control.”
The pain led Nellum to risk two more surgeries to remove the fragments after his sophomore and junior seasons. But it wasn’t until this spring that Nellum started running without pain. And as the pain receded, his old form emerged.
The breakthrough moment came in the Invite Elite race in April’s Mt. SAC Relays. The 45.18 Nellum ran that day was his personal record, and at that point was the fastest time in the country this year (it was fourth by the end of the regular season). But even more importantly for his confidence, the only runners who went faster were Olympic finalists Martyn Rooney and Jeremy Wariner. It was a breakthrough moment.
Nellum followed it up with his Pac-12 championship time of 45.20 in the 400, and was expected to compete for the NCAA title before Wednesday’s disappointing performance ended that hope – a dropoff that Allice attributed to mistakenly burning up too much fuel on the backstretch keeping pace with other runners, and leaving nothing for the end.
But there is still a chance for a title in the relay – the foursome Nellum will run with posted the fastest time in the nation this year at 3:02.24. And he isn’t giving up on his track dreams after the NCAA championships, either. Nellum plans to compete in the 400 at the U.S. Olympic Trials later this month.
“Things happen,” Nellum said of Wednesday’s performance. “I’m just going to go back to the drawing board and fix it.”
It’s the attitude that got him back to this point. Why, he asks, should he stop now?
“I’ve tried to talk to him, and I said, ‘You realize what your legs looked like? You couldn’t walk,’” Allice said. “What we’ve gone through, losing today is a speed bump. He’s climbed a mountain to get back.
“It’s been a long road, and a bumpy road. And it’s not done yet. The story’s not done.”