Redshirt junior sprinter Bryshon Nellum set a collegiate personal best with a 45.56-second 400-meter dash over the weekend at the Pac-10 championships in Tucson, Ariz. It was his best time in four years.
USC sprinter Bryshon Nellum was supposed to recover, but he wasn’t supposed to be able to reach world-class speeds again -- not after he was shot in both legs while leaving a party just off the school’s campus early on Halloween morning in 2008.
He’s done both.
Nellum, a decorated track star at Long Beach Poly who set a number of state and national records at the prep ranks in 2006 and 2007, finished third in the 400-meter race at the Pac-10 championships this weekend in Tucson, Ariz. His 400-meter time -- 45.56, less than two-tenths of a second off his personal best of 45.38 -- was his best time in more than three years.
Entering the weekend, he had hoped only to finish with a time below 46 seconds flat, which, he said, would put him on track to break his personal record in the 400 come next month’s NCAA championships in Iowa.
He’s in position to do that now, just over two and a half years removed from the tragic incident that nearly claimed his track career. Just before 2 a.m. on Friday, October 31, 2008, Nellum left a local restaurant on Vermont Avenue to head home when he was attacked and hit with multiple pellets from one firing of a shotgun, in both of his thighs and right hamstring. The shooters, two 21-year-old men, were arrested in February 2009 and charged with attempted murder.
His recovery process was long and arduous, and doctors at California Hospital Medical Center had little to compare it to. When had a world-class athlete readying to compete on a world stage suffered a severe injury that threatened primarily his livelihood and not his life?
The only similar situation is that of American cyclist Greg LeMond, who, on a hiking excursion two months prior to the 1987 Tour de France, was shot in the back with a shotgun by his brother-in-law. LeMond’s injury was believed to be of a more life-threatening variety, though, with multiple pellets unable to be removed by surgery and remaining around his heart. He missed the next two years of competition while recovering and dramatically won the 1989 and 1990 tours with dozens of pellet fragments still inside of his body.
“All I can do is go through the experience, you know?” Nellum, 22, asks now. “I don’t think anybody really knows what to do or how it feels. It’s rare that somebody can get shot and still come back and run again.”
Nellum competed in 2010 with pellets still in his right leg, near a nerve in his hamstring. His times were well off the pace he set his senior season of high school, but he scored points for the Trojans in the Dual Meet against UCLA and ran the leadoff leg for the fifth-best 4x400m relay team in the country at the NCAA championships in June. Then, two months later, he underwent surgery to remove a fragment that had lodged itself in an accessible location of his leg.
Doctors are not sure whether all of the remaining pellets have been removed, Nellum said, but he does know he’s not yet 100 percent recovered.
“I am limited,” he said simply last week before leaving for Arizona. “Mentally, I want to go. My body wants to go full speed and I want to go, but, physically, my hamstring just won’t let me.”
Watching Nellum in track training sessions is interesting. His teammates, most with no physical limitations, focus on their particular track event and do whatever it calls for, over and over, working on specifics of their start or finish or something in between.
Nellum rarely sprints in practice. He saves that for meets. Most of his in-practice efforts, then, go toward rehab and keeping his body in shape. He jogs, he stretches, he watches. And he repeats it, over and over.
“I don’t do anything different,” he says. “I just do more of it. I jog twice as much as everybody else.”
For someone who could once jog half as much as everybody else, that's a bit . . . frustrating.
“It’s stressful, it’s nervewracking,” Nellum says. “But, at the same time, I’m still blessed to be able to run again, you know? That was my main thing. For me to be able to run again and go from there, I’ll take the baby steps. All I do is I start off small and gradually build myself and try to maintain my speed around the track.”
Nellum’s event, the 400-meter sprint, consists of one lap around a track, usually run at full speed. The concept of a world-class sprinter starting off small, gradually building oneself up and finishing on the podium in a 400-meter sprint is laughable.
Yet that’s exactly what Nellum just did at Pac-10’s. His time, just over two seconds slower than the fastest 400-meter dash ever run, is 11th all-time in USC history.
“That’s what makes him different than other people,” says jumper Tony Burnett, a teammate of Nellum’s for the last two seasons. “People have gears, sure. But his third gear is like everybody else’s fifth gear.
“Once he gets comfortable with being able to run and getting up to his own fifth gear, he’s gonna make some people say, ‘Whoa, he’s back.’ ”
Prior to the accident, Nellum could essentially run an entire race at that fifth gear with little stretching and preparation. Now, he’s learning how lucky he once was and learning to be patient as he moves through his gearshifts.
“That’s one thing it definitely is doing,” he says, laughing. “It’s definitely teaching me patience.
“There were times in my life where I didn’t even have to warm up and I could just go out there and run and beat everybody. Now, it’s patience. You gotta take your time, treat your body right and get your rest.”
The top time at the Pac-10 championships in the 400-meter sprint was run by an Oregon freshman, Mike Berry. Berry was the second-best prep runner in that category a year ago. But the improvements he has made since high school are astonishing. His personal best has improved by 1.22 seconds.
Attach that sort of an increase to the numbers Nellum posted in high school, and Olympic-quality numbers approaching the 43-second range are produced. But those close to him say that is still possible.
Said Burnett: “You’re not gonna know when it’s gonna come, because he’s gonna decide when it comes.
“But it’s going to come, and you’ll know when it happens.”