martes, 10 de julio de 2012

Nellum, Lalova, a Long Journey to the Olympics

Bryshon Nellum, back in his high school days in Long Beach Poly
        He had been one of the most sport-talented high schoolers of his generation, achieving uncountable victories for his team Long Beach Poly. Yet unfortunately, after leaving a restaurant, he was shot by gangsters from a car, in a sad Halloween evening of 2009. Seriously wounded in both legs, doctors argued he would never be able to recover his past fitness. However, with patience and hard work, and especially because of the support of his mother and close friends, he slowly learned to walk again, then to run, then returned to the track to face the best quarter milers of the country. No one had bet a dollar for him, yet the 24th June 2012, the day the national championships were held in Oregon, he ran with unusual determination, getting to finish the race in the top-3, thus achieving his Olympic dream… No, this is not the account of an action movie but the true amazing story of Bryshon Nellum, still on the making.

             Nellum was born the 1st May 1989 in Los Angeles. In his teen days in Long Beach Polytechnic High School he practised both athletics and football. He was an excellent dive receiver but eventually focused in his track vocation. Nellum became the first Californian athlete in achieving the 200m-400m double two years in a row (2006 and 2007) at the State Championships. In the latter season, he also led his team to two relay victories. No athlete had accomplished 4 gold medals in that contest in 91 years. (1) With impressive times for an 18-year-old of 20.43 at the 200m and 45.38 at the 400m, Bryshon was deservedly named 2007 Gatorade National Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year. The Long Beach Poly High quarter miler also shone internationally, capturing bronze in 2005 at the World Youth Champs in Marrakech, a noteworthy collective gold as a member of the US 4x400 relay in Beijing one year later in junior category, and finally the Pan American U-19 400m individual title in his stellar season of 2007.
            Bryshon Nellum was expected to battle for a spot in the Olympic team for Beijing but fate decided otherwise. Early in the season he had to redshirt his high school senior campaign due to injury; then came that moment in which Bryshon feared for his life, after exiting a party. (2) The Long Beach athlete was never involved in a gang and still today does not understand why he was attacked. Looking to the eyes of his aggressors during the trial, Nellum said to try to find an answer. Anyway, that incident put in jeopardy his whole track and field career, though Bryshon Nellum firstly could only think in being able of getting up from his hospital bed without help: “I was like a baby. I had to learn how to crawl before I learned how to walk before I learned how to run. I had a lot of rough times. It was hard coming back. I just kept my faith in God and took things day by day. I stayed consistent and I stayed dedicated.” (3)  Perseverance and the company of mates and mother kept him going through those moments of pain and anguish. (4) Determined to run again, Nellum spent about five hours a day in the weight room, at track practice and in multiple physical therapy sessions. In his return to running activity he even sometimes had to practise on one leg. Enrolled by South California University he reappeared in 2010 but even then he was slowed by three operations in order to remove bullet fragments.  

Bryshon Nellum makes the USA Olympic team after finishing third in the 400m final at the trials held in Eugene, OR
Photo: Paul Buck/EPA

Nevertheless, as Bryshon Nellum says, what does not kill you makes you stronger. This 2012 the USC sprinter seemed to be at last free of any health issue and as a result he improved in April his long standing PB, running the lap distance in a world-class 45.18 in Walnut. After triumphing at the Pacific-12 and nearly matching his recent PB (45.20), Nellum was expected to deliver valuable points for the Trojans at the NCAA but he failed to make the final in a contest with the deepest field in many years. However, Bryshon anchored South California to second place in the 4x400m relay, after an epic battle against the individual champion Tony McQuay of Florida. This race meant a huge boost of confidence for Nellum as also was the feat of progressing through heats and semi-finals at the national championships, side by side with Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt. (3)
The USA national trials were some kind of redemption for Merritt, after his 21-month doping ban, and a confirmation of the great talent of Tony McQuay, who finished runner-up in a new personal best. On the other hand, it meant a new disappointment for former number one in the event, Jeremy Wariner, who seems to be near the end of his athletic career. Unlike Wariner, the championships signalled an optimistic come back to the spotlight for Tyson Gay, after years of struggling with injuries. (5) Yet even the brilliant return of the Osaka triple gold medallist can be overshadowed if we think about all that Bryshon Nellum had to overcome in his long journey to London Olympic Games. Josh Mance, who precisely finished 4th at the trials just eight hundredths of a second after the excellent 44.80 of Nellum, knew well all that his mate in USC had been through: “Of everybody at the Olympic Trials, he has the best story, the most inspirational. He should be the headliner of this whole meet. No track athlete gets shot with a shotgun and has three bullets go through both legs and is still out there running 44.8s. He is a blessing.” (3) Amazingly, Bryshon Nellum was not the only man who made the US team for London after experiencing the bitter experience of being shot. George Kitchens was the revelation of the long jump event, improving all the way to 8.21 to book his ticket. A long time ago, when he was 12 he received a bullet in his chest and was left for dead, along with her sister and friend Lyndon Fubler. (6) While Kitchens and his friend recovered, her sister was paralysed. Without a doubt she will be a source of motivation in the performance of her Olympian brother in London.    


Ivet Lalova had never been shot for members of a gang but her extraordinary return to top form, after six long years of struggling and seven operations on her right leg, can be related to the inspirational cases of Bryshon Nellum and George Kitchens. Lalova, born the 18th May 1984 in Sofia, was predestined to become the new Bulgarian sprinter prodigy, following the illustrious tradition of Ivanka Valkova, Lilyana Panayotova, Sofka Popova, Nadezhda Georgieva, Aneliya Nuneva and Petya Pendareva. The young sprinter, whose parents Miroslav Lalov and Liliya Petrunova had been both renowned athletes inside the country, was soon put under the guidance of Konstantin Milanov, a long jumper back in the 60s. Milanov, who would remain by her side for 15 years, coached wisely Ivet Lalova, steadily developing her into one of the best sprinters in the world.  Ivet became national champion for the first time in 2000, yet she finished just out of the medals at the 200m event the following season in Debrecen at the World Youth Championships and did not make the final at the 2002 World Juniors in Kingston. However she brilliantly accomplished a double sprint victory in Tampere the next season, on occasion of the European Junior Championships. It was followed up for a sensational first senior campaign in the 2004 Olympic year.
Lalova showed her great potential in the winter, recording 22.87s in a sport hall, but missed the World Championships, due to a freaky accident, when she broke her left foot big toe, after kicking a chest in her bedroom. Reappeared in late May, she set a new PB in the 200m (22.58) but her progression was far more remarkable at the 100m event. She launched her summer campaign with already a personal record of 11.14. Then lowered her PB to 11.12 and 11.06, before running the distance in a groundbreaking 10.77!! the 19th June in Plovdiv, giving maximum points to Bulgaria at the First Division European Cup. Incidentally she left 0.40s behind Kim Gevaert, the woman who went on to conquer five single European titles in successive years. “Everything was perfect then,” confirmed Lalova. “The track was very fast, the wind was not so strong, and surprisingly even for me I got an excellent start. I was sure that I can run under eleven seconds, but to run so fast! It will take me time to realise what I have done.” (7) 

Ivet Lalova competing at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games

With her explosive performance, Lalova all together smashed the 10.85 Aneliya Nuneva’s national record which dated back from 1988, set the best mark in the world in six years, and most important of all she climbed all the way to the number 6th spot in the all-time lists (currently 10th), tied with Russian Irina Privalova. With the latter athlete she still shares the distinction of fastest white woman ever over the distance. Besides, Lalova’s 10.77 stands as the best mark ever for a 20-year-old, just comparable to the 10.88 World junior record of Marlies Goehr, back in 1977. The record also sparked some controversy: the reaction time was officially 0.117s but some outsiders argued it should have actually been a false start. Nevertheless with her solid performance at the Olympic Games two months later, Lalova proved her world-class mark was no fluke.
In her first major championship, the young Bulgarian standout said to come just to learn, without big ambitions. However she was unanimously favoured for a medal and her 4th place at the 100m final and her 5th at the 200m, although excellent, had to be bittersweet probably for the new sprinting sensation. With Kelli White, Torri Edwards and local girl Ekatheríni Thanou all involved in doping related issues, Marion Jones also out unable to recover her past form, Christine Arron coming to the Games with 31 years, Zhanna Block with 32, Gail Devers with 37 and Marlene Ottey with 44!!, the female sprints were up for a new order. (8) Out of the eight 100m eventual finalists in Athens, only Bahamian Debbie Ferguson had been in a major final. Yuliya Nestsiarenka, snatching more than half a second from her previous year’s PB was the shocking winner, though she remained consistent under 11sec in each one of her four races. After her, surprising the same, crossed the line 21 year-old Lauryn Williams, the NCAA champion, and 22-year-old Veronica Campbell. The Jamaican, a collegian in the USA too, scored a massive 22.05 PB to also clinch gold at the 200m, an event in which she had been unbeaten for four years, although her international experience was rather limited outside of Champs, Carifta and JUCO. A 19-year-old Allyson Felix was a well deserved silver medallist, in a new world junior record. Among such astounding newcomers, Ivet Lalova passed her first serious test with excellent grades. Only middle-distance legend Nikolina Shtereva in Montreal 1976 had achieved before for Bulgaria to qualify for the Olympic final in two different events. (9) Outside of her track prowess, Lalova’s remarkable beauty and belly button tattoo stood out as well, when she was chosen for “Miss Glamour” on the Olympic Games through Internet inquiries published in the German magazine “Stern.” (9)
Yuliya Nestsiarenka was unable to keep her momentum in the subsequent years yet we all know about the long impressive careers of Lauryn Williams, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Allyson Felix. Ivet Lalova also showed her determination to compete with the best in early 2005. First she triumphed at the 200m at the European indoors in Madrid, the last time this distance was staged at the contest. Then she won the Golden Spike in Prague in 11.03, ahead of one of the most promising runners of the moment, Sherone Simpson, whom she had beaten at the Olympic Games as well. Lalova had the talent to face those scintillating North American and Jamaican stars and we could have seen her snatching pieces of glory from them all over a decade. Nonetheless tragedy cut short soon every expectation. The 14th June at the Athens Grand Prix she collided while warming up with another runner with the fatal result she broke her femur. Ivet was operated with success the next morning by Doctor Pantellis Nikolau. A 38cm surgical nail was affixed in her damaged leg, where it would be kept for the next three years. Otherwise, Lalova always declined to take any legal action for the responsibility of the accident against neither the other runner nor the organisation, a decision which would earn her a fair play prize awarded by the IOC. Doctors said Lalova would never be able to practise sport elite anymore. However she refused to give up her athletic dream and started to prepare her come back as soon as she left hospital. 

Ivet celebrates after her victory at the 100m distance at the 2012 European Championships in Helsinki
Photo: Ian Walton/ Getty Images Europe

Almost two years afterwards, Lalova made a successful return to competition in Beograd, winning in style with 11.26, in an outing where the likes of Miki Barber and Chandra Sturrup had been entered. This race meant a lot for the moral of the athlete but this one was still far from full recovery. Up to six more times her leg would need surgery again. Lalova qualified for Osaka Worlds and Beijing Olympics but not at her best she did not make the final in any of those championships. Then in 2009 and 2010 she could not run faster during the season than 11.48 and 11.43 respectively. The dream seemed over.   
Notwithstanding, even if many believed she was on the verge of retirement, Ivet Lalova never thought about quitting and kept struggling every day instead to put an end to her tough years. In that crucial moment the athlete took a transcendental decision: she moved to Italy, along with boyfriend Simone Collio, to join reputed coach Roberto Bonomi. For the first time in many years, Ivet was not troubled for injuries in the 2011 campaign and the wise guidance of Bonomi made the rest. After an encouraging beginning with a victory at the Club Championships in Izmir in 11.08, Lalova won without opposition at the Bislett Games in Oslo with a slightly windy 11.01. It was the first Diamond League victory for a Bulgarian athlete and a clear symptom that the fastest white woman in history was back to her very best, a feeling she confirmed breaking for the second time in her career the 11sec barrier (10.96), at the Balkan Championships held in Sliven. Interestingly, during those 6 years Lalova was struggling to regain her past form, only one European athlete, Christine Arron, in her swan song year of 2005, had got to run a 100m race under 11 seconds. With the best hopes, Lalova went to the World Championships where she reached the 100m final, ending up 7th; then narrowly failed her target at the 200m, after having clocked 22.62 at the heats.
In the new year of 2012 Ivet Lalova keeps the same optimistic mood. Her first major victory, which she achieved at the recent European Championships in Helsinki, where she beat the foremost specialists in the continent Olesya Povh, Verena Sailer and Ezinne Okparaebo, can be read as a stunning triumph over adversity. Lalova stated the lowest moment of her career was when she had to watch the World Championships in Helsinki from her hospital bed. (10) Seven years afterwards she made at last the trip to Finland to proclaim she is in her best shape ever and ready for London Olympic Games.    

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