LOS ANGELES — The bullet wounds in his legs weren't more than an hour old when USC sprinter Bryshon Nellum asked doctors the only question that mattered to him at that moment.
"Do you know if I'm going to be able to run again?" he said.
At about 1:45 a.m. on Oct. 31, 2008, a man Nellum didn't recognize jumped out of the passenger seat of a car, approached and fired a shotgun as the sophomore walked home from a Halloween party he attended near USC's campus. Metal pellets ripped through both of Nellum's legs, leaving him just enough strength to limp to the sidewalk and crumple to the ground as the gunman and an accomplice sped away.
As soon as Nellum realized only his legs were hit and the wounds weren't life-threatening, his thoughts immediately turned to his track and field future. Nellum, the most decorated high school sprinter in California history, feared doctors might tell him he'd never run again, let alone chase his lifelong dream of running in the Olympics.
"The doctors couldn't promise anything," Nellum said. "They basically told me, 'You'll be able to walk again but we don't think you'll ever have the world-class speed you had before.' That was motivation for me. Once I knew I was going to be able to walk, I told myself I was going to do whatever it takes to get back to a high level."
It took 44 months, three surgeries and countless frustration-filled days, but Nellum fulfilled that vow with a flourish in June. He earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team with a stunning third-place finish in the finals of the 400 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials, a Hollywood-esque climax to his first injury-free season since the shooting.
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When the Hayward Field scoreboard confirmed he'd edged USC teammate Josh Mance for third in a personal-record 44.80 seconds, Nellum took a moment by himself to collect his thoughts before taking his customary celebration lap. He thought about everything he'd endured the past few years, from stabbing pain in his legs during races, to thousands of hours of grueling rehab, to persistent fear that his assailants would come after him again.
"This is a miracle based on desire, dedication and the will of that young man to come back," USC track and field coach Ron Allice said. "There have been a lot of setbacks and a lot of tears, but he's stronger now for what he's been through."
What persuaded Nellum to persevere through the lowest points in his recovery process was the responsibility he felt not to squander his immense talent.
Even in a sport overrun with burnout talents who didn't pan out, most in track and field circles believed Nellum was a can't-miss phenom. The Los Angeles native's fluid running style, powerful legs and impressive stamina were ideal for the 400 meters, a punishing race that is too taxing for many short sprinters and too swift for many middle-distance runners.
Nellum celebrates his four gold medals at the 2007 California state championships (Getty Images)When Nellum was 7, he scorched fields of 9-year-olds. By age 15, he ran the fastest time in the world for his age in the 400 meters. And as a senior he set a state high school record in the 200 meters (20.43 seconds), earned the Gatorade National Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year award and became the first athlete in 91 years to capture four golds at California's state track and field championships.
"I would say he's one of the greatest athletes I've ever coached," said coach Don Norford, whose Long Beach Poly High School track and field program has produced numerous collegiate stars. "I've had great athletes, but he stands above in a lot of ways because of his heart, his power and his fluidity. When everyone else was straining, he was just so relaxed."
Nellum's friends and family were so accustomed to his invincibility on the track that the sight of him bedridden in the hospital after the shooting was jarring to say the least. The wounds he suffered in both thighs and his left hamstring were severe enough to keep him in constant pain for weeks, confine him to his bed or a wheelchair for two months and force him to hobble around on crutches for a while after that.
As difficult as that was for Nellum, the psychological trauma at times was even worse. Since the gunmen remained at large for more than four months after the shooting, Nellum often laid in bed wondering who his assailants were and whether they might come after him again.
"It was scary," he said. "I had so many nightmares and dreams with people killing me, shooting me, chasing me or something like that."
The question Nellum and his family asked most often at that time was, "Why?"
Why target a kid who had no gang ties or enemies and hadn't been involved in any confrontations the night of the shooting? Was it a random act of violence? Jealousy over Nellum's accomplishments? A crazed former opponent seeking revenge?
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"We didn't know what type of individual would want to do something like this," Nellum's mother LeShon Hughes said. "Who would want to take a firearm and aim toward his legs? What human would think of doing something like that? He had not one enemy because that's the type of person he is."
The revelation of the identity of the two gunmen fueled the suspicions among Nellum's family and friends that the attack was likely premeditated.
Travon Reed of Los Angeles and Horasio Kimbrough of Inglewood, both of whom police identified as gang members, were charged with attempted murder in February 2009 and received identical 15-year prison sentences last year after pleading no contest. Even though police have no evidence either man knew who Nellum was, Allice notes that ending the career of a talented kid who rose to stardom in a nearby neighborhood may fit the twisted agenda of some gangs.
"They didn't shoot him in the chest. They shot him in the leg," Allice said. "That's no coincidence, in my opinion. That's jealousy. This guy's the track and field athlete of the year? Well, OK. You knock that guy out? Well, that's a badge of honor."
Regardless of whether Reed and Kimbrough targeted Nellum, it eased the sprinter's fears when both men were behind bars. Nellum attended most of the court proceedings in person because he wanted to look his attackers in the eye, learn as much about them as he could and try to determine what it was that made them do it.
"I wanted to know everything," Nellum said. "Once I went to court and court was over with, I was good. I was able to just focus on me now. Yeah, I felt like I wanted to jump over the table and get them, but that wasn't going to do anything for me. What's going to make me happy and make me better in life in the long run is getting back on the track and doing what I love to do."
Months of inactivity left Nellum's once-powerful legs withered and weak, so he spent five hours a day doing physical therapy and strength training to begin building back the muscle he lost. Physical therapists at USC often had him writhing on a table in anguish from excruciating muscle-kneading massages designed to break apart scar tissue and allow it to heal as muscle.
About a year after the shooting, Nellum first began jogging lightly on the track and working to regain his stride pattern. Only after another six months went by, however, did Nellum finally compete in his first open 400 meters race.
On Nellum's 21st birthday on May 1, 2010, Allice entered him in the 400 meters at the UCLA-USC dual meet. It was supposed to be a smokescreen to psych out the Bruins, but Nellum managed to persuade his coach to let him run, later validating the decision by finishing second in the race in a modest 46.31 seconds.
"He begged me, I caved in and it turned out to be a wise decision," Allice said. "It was as happy a moment for me on that day as the Olympic trials. Finally, something good happened for him on the track."
When Nellum shaved four tenths of a second off that time at the Pac-10 championships two weeks later and also ran the first leg on the Trojans' victorious 4x400-meter relay, he assumed he'd continue making steady progress. Instead, he endured setback after setback, testing his patience and leaving him uncertain if he'd ever make it all the way back.
Since there were too many pellets in Nellum's legs to safely remove all at once, he began his comeback with some still in his body. Doctors hoped he would be able to run pain-free despite the pellets, but Nellum repeatedly experienced flare-ups when he attempted to accelerate to top speed.
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At the NCAA Championships in June 2010, Nellum felt a pinch in his right hamstring during the opening leg of the 4x400-meter relay because a pellet was irritating a nerve. For the sake of his teammates, Nellum dragged his right leg around the track like a crutch, but he underwent surgery that summer to remove more of the metal fragments.
The 2010-11 season ended even more discouragingly for Nellum when searing pain in his groin waylaid him midway through a race at NCAA Regionals. The pain was a result of the last remaining fragments in his legs, forcing Nellum to decide whether to finally give up the sport he loved or to have surgery that carried a risk of nerve damage or even partial paralysis.
"We just said we were going to take a chance," Hughes said. "We had faith in our Heavenly Father. It was like what else can he lose? We might as well have this last surgery and see what happens. It was very, very risky, but now there's no pain."
Although Nellum indeed has been virtually pain-free in 2012 and has started running hard in practice again for the first time since the shooting, he still has to take precautions in training his peers don't.
Whereas most 400-meter specialists regularly run the 100 and 200 meters to increase their speed, Nellum has only run a pair of 200s this season, both from an outside lane to make the curve as comfortable as possible. Allice also noted that Nellum is still protecting his legs by "putting it in neutral" when he runs the curve in either the 200 or 400 meters.
All the safety measures Nellum is taking only make what he has accomplished this season more impressive.
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He offered an early warning shot that he'd be a threat this summer by running the 400 in a sizzling 45.18 seconds at the Mount Sac Relays in April, finally surpassing his best time from high school. He demonstrated that was no fluke a month later by winning the Pac-12 championships in 45.20 seconds. And while he faded down the stretch in a preliminary round at the NCAA Championships and failed to make the finals, he at least emerged from the event healthy and ready to redeem himself at the Olympic trials.
Viewed more as an afterthought than a contender entering the event, Nellum didn't generate much attention when he cruised to the fourth-fastest time in the prelims (45.58 seconds) or when he ran a personal-best 45.16 seconds in the semifinals. TV commentators didn't highlight his story the day of the finals either, nor did they mention him during the race when he came off the final curve in seventh place.
It was then, however, that Nellum delivered a finishing kick worthy of an Olympic medal contender and reestablished himself as a key cog in the present and future of USA Track and Field. He zoomed past three opponents on the final straightaway and out-leaned Mance at the tape to grab the U.S. team's third and final spot in the 400 meters in London.
"When I realized I finished third, that's when all the emotions and feelings came out," Nellum said. "Everything I went through made me want it more and made me more appreciative of making the team."
Nellum's time of 44.80 seconds would have earned him a third-place tie in the finals of 2008 Olympics, so he's certainly a realistic medal hopeful in an event in which the U.S. traditionally excels. His most formidable competition likely will be defending Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt, fellow collegian Tony McQuay, Grenada's Kirani James and the Dominican Republic's Luguelin Santos.
It's often difficult for college sprinters to run well at the Olympics because their season is longer and more taxing than the pros, but it would be foolish to count out Nellum given all he's endured.
His nightmares have ceased. His pain has dissipated. And his fears that he'll never reach his potential have vanished.
"It wouldn't surprise me if they made a movie out of his story," Norford said.
If so, there's only one appropriate way for the film to end: On the podium in London with a medal around Nellum's neck.
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