EUGENE, Ore. — Three and a half years ago, Bryshon Nellum was shot in both legs on a street corner in Los Angeles.
On Sunday, he made the U.S. Olympic Team in the 400 meters.
LaShawn Merritt, the 2008 Olympic champion, won the race, in a world-best 44.12 seconds. Tony McQuay of the University of Florida, the 2011 400 U.S. champion, took second, in 44.49. Nellum earned the third and final spot on the London 2012 team, in 44.8.
Bryshon Nellum is 23 years old. He is not only a symbol of perseverance, grit and determination. He is a young man who shows what it means to live the meaning of peace among the gang wars of Southern California.
“I’m more happy than anything that Bryshon got through,” said his University of Southern California teammate, Josh Mance, who finished fourth in 44.88, and though having missed out on his own Olympic dream by a mere eight-hundredths of a second presented himself with such class and dignity that he could talk about Bryshon with those words, and more.
“He is the story of the meet,” Mance said, adding a moment later, “He is a blessing.”
Nellum was a star high-school quarter-miler. He went to USC with big expectations. Those were tempered by a hamstring injury his freshman year.
Eight months of rehab later, things started looking up. Then came the shooting.
It was early in the morning of Oct. 31, 2008. Nellum had been at a Halloween party near campus. He was near the corner of South 29th Street and West Vermont Avenue when, crossing the street to head back to his dorm room, a shotgun blast rang out.
He was hit in the left quad and the right hamstring. “When I first got shot,” he said, “I just thought I was never going to walk again. It’s crazy because I never did fall to the ground. I kept going — like, run to safety. I hopped and skipped on one leg, to safety. Ever since then, I have been recovering.”
He endured three surgeries, the most recent last year: “I slept through it. I dreamt it. I ate it. I woke up with it. I ran through it. I came a long way.”
How long? “I was running on one leg at practice. Like a baby, I had to crawl before I walked. Before I ran. Those were the steps I had to go through in the process.”
Travon Reed, a Los Angeles man, and Horasio Kimbrough, of Inglewood, Calif., were convicted in the shooting and sentenced to prison terms of 15 years to life, Nellum said.
Authorities have repeatedly and insistently said that Nellum has no gang affiliation. He said he went to court to watch the case, hoping to answer one question: why?
He said he got no answer.
He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“You know what they say? Whatever doesn’t break you only makes you stronger. So,” he said, “I just feel like whatever happened, happened for a reason. Now I’m just trying to be a better person, and a better athlete.”
Early this season, at the Mt. SAC meet in Walnut, Calif., Nellum ran a 45.1. That was a sign, he said, that this year could be something special. He won the Pac-12 championship. Then, though, he didn’t make the NCAA final.
That happened for a reason, too, he said — to get him ready for the Trials.
At a news conference, after Merritt had said he had genuine confidence in his young teammates but acknowledged that it was now time to do some “big-boy running,” Nellum said he would be up to it.
After what he has been through — what in London is there to be afraid of? Come on.
At that same news conference, Nellum made sure to thank his mother, LeShon Hughes, who has been with him for every step, figuratively and literally. She was here in Eugene to cheer him on. “Without my mom, none of this would have happened,” he said, adding, “I would just like to say, ‘I love you, mom.’ ”
He said later, “This is a dream come true. I’m here. I had the medal around my neck. I talked to the people. I got the team processing [forms] I have my American flag. My flowers. So I guess,” and he paused, “it’s true.”