Some days during practice, Bryshon Nellum literally crawled across the finish line as bullet fragments touching on nerves in his legs brought pain that screamed with each passing meter. He fought back tears right there on the track.
Yet there he was, pushing himself, running again. Just as he vowed to do. Even when teammate and longtime friend Joey Hughes insisted it would be more than fine to stop, to give his body and his mind a break.
Doctors told the Southern California sprinter he might never return to competition for the Trojans after being shot in the legs as he left a restaurant near campus following a Halloween party in 2008.
"Bad timing, wrong place, wrong time," said Nellum, now 23 and a redshirt senior.
Three surgeries and more than three years later, Nellum is headed to the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field championships beginning Wednesday in Des Moines, Iowa, among the favorites in his tough 400-meter field. His semifinal heat is Wednesday, and Nellum also will run on USC's talented 1,600-meter relay team.
"The feeling is something I can't even explain," Nellum said of returning to top form at last. "I've been through so much."
Nellum took a bullet to each thigh and another in the left hamstring during the shooting when he was just 19. Two gang members were sentenced last August to 15 years each in prison for the crime. Prosecutors said the men mistook the athlete for a rival gang member.
Nellum, meanwhile, has moved on, still determined to fulfill his Olympic dream one day - even in one of the toughest events historically for an American sprinter.
"We definitely found that to be the oddest thing, you have a million body parts and they picked his legs," said Hughes, a high school and college teammate who always believed in Nellum and admired his unfailing desire. "Bryshon is no under-the-rock runner. He's a celebrity."
Nellum arrived at USC 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.
"It's been a bumpy road. It was not smooth and easy at all," said his mother, LeShon Hughes, a single mom who works with preschool children in the Los Angeles Unified School District. "Thank God for the handful of good friends we have who never gave up on us."
Nellum's breakthrough this spring came with a personal-record 400 in 45.18 seconds at the Mt. SAC Relays on April 21 for the top collegiate time of the season at that point and ninth-fastest in school history. A pair of former Olympic finalists were the only two to finish the race faster. Then Nellum captured the Pac-12 400 title last month in 45.20.
"I don't think it's the legs that changed, I think it's the mindset that he carries now," Joey Hughes said. "I never had a doubt, never in my mind."
Nellum hopes to continue this roll through the weekend and on to the U.S. Trials later this month in Eugene, Ore. A year ago, his season was cut short as he underwent a third and final surgery to remove the remaining bullet fragments in his left hamstring.
"I will never forget about it, and of course it will always be a part of my life. I take the positive out of it and move forward," he said. "Things happen. I'm back on the track. I don't even pay mind to them. I put it all in the past."
That's not so easy for his mother. She put her entire life aside to help her only child heal. The experience is still painful, and she becomes emotional thinking about it.
She and her son relied on their strong faith along the way. Hughes' mother, Brenda Jones, is another big reason Nellum is back and believing in his new legs.
"I still kind of get stuck on the words to say because it's a miracle," Nellum's mom said. "At the moment, I'm lost for words because we're still in the midst of the journey. We're almost at the end of the journey."
Nellum is quick to credit USC coach Ron Allice, who is appreciative that the university supported his athlete the entire way during what has become not only a remarkable comeback tale for the program, but for track and field and sports in general.
"He has the qualities that are the end result of what he's overcome," Allice said. "Not a lot of people would have had the patience, the fortitude as well as that burning desire to overcome and succeed. Some of us have it, and some of us don't."
Not once would Nellum let the doctors deter him from believing he would rebound from his injuries.
"It was one of the worst feelings ever," he recalled. "I couldn't let anything like that - just so crazy - take away my career."
He is finally pain-free for the first time in his college career.
"Time has flown," Nellum said. "The main thing for me to get through everything was I took it day by day, step by step. Like a baby, I crawled before I walked. It was re-educating the muscles. I had to start from there."
Each time Allice thought they were headed in the right direction, Nellum would have a flare up. His legs felt as if they were on fire. He kept going.
"He is special," Allice said. "If we can get to the finals of the NCAAs, let's let it all hang out and see what happens, and from there it would give us another week and a half to the Trials. This is not the end. This is the beginning."
Sheer determination fueled Nellum through those agonizing training sessions.
Nellum learned in an instant when he got wounded never to "take the small things for granted."
"I'm thankful to wake up the next morning and smile. I'm thankful to see a smile on somebody else's face," Nellum said. "I couldn't ask for anything else more than just to run again."