The University of Southern California (USC) is one of the nation's most prestigious private universities — its reputation for academic excellence bested only by its reputation for churning out sports stars. In fact, USC's PR team announced today that the school has produced more Olympians than any other U.S. campus.
But USC also happens to be awkwardly located at the edge of West Adams, one of the gangiest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. For track-and-field hotshot Bryshon Nellum, 23, that almost meant a career cut short in 2008:
According to City News Service, Nellum was shot three times in the left thigh and right hamstring while walking out of a college Halloween party at Leonardo's — a Vermont Avenue nightclub located just two blocks from campus.
LAPD detectives later determined that the two reputed gangsters who shot Nellum had mistaken him for a gang rival.
It was a devastating blow for the freshman track sensation, who had graduated from local athlete factory Long Beach Poly the year before as the nation's No. 1 high-school sprinter. Before his freak street injury, Nellum “was considered a potential Olympian,” reported City News at the time of the drive-by.
And, although surgeons were still removing shards of bullet from Nellum's leg as recently as last year, he powered through the pain last month to recapture all that shattered potential:
At the 2012 Olympic tryouts in Oregon, Nellum ran a personal best of 44.8 seconds in the 400 meters — officially qualifying him for the London games. (As well as securing him a solid spot on the men's 4 x 400 relay.)
His miraculous performance rides on years of blood, sweat and tears, USC track coach Ron Allice recently told the Long Beach Press-Telegram:
“He was literally starting from ground zero, each time. He was having his legs cut open each time, and each time he was having muscle cut or tissue removed or having a delicate operation removing a fragment from the edge of a nerve. It's only been the last eight months that he's been pain-free since the shooting. … The amount of work he's put in to get back … I've never seen anything like it.”
Two 21-year-old gang members from Inglewood were arrested in early 2009 and jailed for the shooting outside Leonardo's.
Nellum said in a Los Angeles Times interview that he went to all the suspects' court hearings, because he wanted “to see these guys and look them in the eyes and see who were they, why it happened.” But he was eventually forced to move on with the frustrating knowledge that two thugs had simply mistaken him for someone else.
USC brushes the incident under the rug in Nellum's online athletic profile, saying only: “Suffered a season-ending left leg injury in the Fall (gunshot wound) and had to redshirt.”
The university's prestige was clouded again in recent months by a tragic double homicide outside a grad student's apartment near campus: Two international scholars from China were shot dead by a suspected robber raiding their BMW. The parents of those students have since sued USC officials for falsely advertising the campus as safe and secure on its recruiting website.
But Nellum got lucky, if you can call it that — and will live to see his Olympic dreams come true this summer on the other side of the world. Here's a touching documentary from an uphill moment of the journey: