US sprinter Nellum defies doctors to run again

Bryshon Nellum's doctors told him he might never run again.

Not on an elite level. And surely not in the Olympics.

Yet here he is in London, less than four years after gang members shot the former Southern California track star three times in the legs in a case of mistaken identity. Just a year ago he underwent his third and final operation to remove the last remnants of bullet fragments in his left hamstring.

"Me making the team, I already feel like I've won," Nellum said.

Nellum will make his long-awaited Olympic debut Saturday in the preliminary heats of the 400 meters -- the same event that features double-amputee Oscar Pistorius of South Africa. The man known as "Blade Runner" fought to compete alongside the other sprinters at Olympic Stadium.

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Already, Nellum says, he has won just by wearing the U.S. uniform when many questioned whether he'd even walk after the accident after a party on Halloween night 2008.

The 23-year-old Nellum is now mixing company with some of the very track stars he has watched and admired in recent Summer Olympics: Jeremy Wariner, Allyson Felix, Sanya Richards-Ross.

"I'm happy to be here to represent where I come from and what I believe in, and my country," Nellum said. "I've been through a lot making the team already. I have to continue to work toward my goals."

For him to be competing in these Olympics would have been unimaginable only four years ago -- two months after Beijing.

But Nellum immediately committed himself to the challenging comeback course. Some days, he crawled across the finish line at practice in agony and tears the pain in his legs so great.

USC coach Ron Allice, with him throughout the journey and by his side for the London Games, never doubted Nellum could do it. Then, Nellum finished third at the Olympic trials in late June, behind defending gold medalist LaShawn Merritt and Tony McQuay.

"Oh, wow," said his mother, LeShon Hughes, moments before her flight took off for London from L.A. on Thursday. "Words can't even explain the feeling. It's like real heaven. I'm starting to cry right now. It's the real journey and the dream that came true."

Hughes and Allice have cheered Nellum every tiny step of the way, through every surgery. Allice wants nothing more than for Nellum to shine once more on the world stage.

Nellum took a bullet to each thigh and another in the left hamstring during the shooting outside a restaurant near USC's campus as he left a Halloween party in 2008. Two gang members were sentenced last August to 15 years each in prison for the crime. Prosecutors said the men mistook Nellum for a rival gang member.

Nellum has chalked it up to "Bad timing, wrong place, wrong time," unwilling to let that one bad-luck moment derail a promising career.

Nellum arrived at college as the 2007 national track athlete of the year from Long Beach Poly High, the first in California to ever win state championships in the 200 and 400 meters in back-to-back seasons.

Then, he sustained a season-ending hamstring injury in his first race. Not quite eight months later, he was shot. It has been an exhausting journey back, through operations and rehabilitation and teaching his legs how to function again.

He's counting on those limbs being in top form.

"I'm enjoying every bit of it," Nellum said. "I'm on a team with a lot of people I used to look up to whenever the Olympics came around. I'm getting focused in now to do what I have to do. I'm still in this mode of just finish strong. Yeah, I made it, but I have another goal. I guess after it's all over with, when I'm by myself, then I will have time to think about it."

As Olympic track and field gets in full swing this weekend, Nellum is trying to balance soaking in everything from his first Olympics with performing at his very best at the exact right time.

"He has stayed very focused and he's keeping everything in perspective," Allice said. "The practices have been going well and it's just getting ready to race. The real test will be the race. Drawing the heats, you have to be lucky and good."

Nellum's mom put her entire life aside and dedicated herself to the recovery of her only child. While the memories of that time are still fresh and painful, these days she's crying happy tears.

Nellum said he learned that day to keep life in perspective, keep sports in perspective.

Watching the opening ceremony in the very stadium where he'll compete, it was tough to control the emotion.

"That was a great experience, with a lot of flashing lights and a lot of athletes," he said. "The whole ceremony itself made me thankful to be at the Olympic Games, thankful to be an athlete and thankful for the United States."

Allice has provided plenty of encouraging words along the way, too.

"He says, 'continue to do what you're doing and you'll be OK," Nellum said. "It's just a bigger stage with more people watching."