Northport runner brings home gold at Paralympics

Northport runner brings home gold at Paralympics

Students high-five Michael Brannigan as he holds his gold medal. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

One of America’s fastest mile runners has a habit of shattering not just records but expectations both on and off the track.

Mikey Brannigan is coming off a monumental year at just 20 years old. Diagnosed with autism at a young age, he said the odds were stacked against him, forcing him to work twice as hard as anybody else. But in 2016, the odds didn’t stand a chance as Brannigan continuously knocked them down on his way to the finish line.

For his athletic achievements and for inspiring so many people, Mikey Brannigan is a 2016 Times Beacon Record News Media Person of the Year.

In August, Brannigan ran a 3:57 mile at the Sir Walter Miler meet in Raleigh, North Carolina — becoming the first person with an intellectual disability to break the 4:00 record —and a month later, competed in the Special Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, under the T20 Paralympic classification, where he took home the gold after a dominating 3:51 mile in the 1500 meters.

“He’s Mozart on the track,” Sonja Robinson, his coach at the New York Athletic Club, said in a phone interview. “When it comes to running, he’s a genius, and it’s mind-boggling what he’s accomplished and how far he’s come. He does not let the autism define him. I say to him all the time ‘you have autism, autism doesn’t have you.’”

Mike Brannigan smiles and holds his gold medal. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

He came home from Rio not just a hero in Northport, where he’s always been celebrated, but around the country, serving as inspiration for any kid with special needs. Brannigan even participated in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year with his fellow New York Olympians.

“It’s been a crazy roller coaster,” Brannigan said in a phone interview. “I accomplished a lot of my goals and achievements.”

When he’s not running, Brannigan and his mother, Edie Brannigan, speak to parents and educators in Northport about autism, bullying and accepting people with disabilities.

According to Edie Brannigan, his message to students is to “follow your dream, give it your all, and do well in school.”

“He’s doing autism awareness through the sports world,” his mother said. “People with autism see they can be elite athletes because somebody’s done it now. They have autism in their lives and see Mikey … he’s doing it for them. It’s incredible. He moves people.”

She said her son has had to work through a lot of disappointment and rejection, but he’s come out on top.

Brannigan was just 12 months old when his parents knew there was something different about him. At 2 years, he was diagnosed with autism, and when he turned 3, his parents were advised to start looking at group homes for him, as she said he wasn’t able to speak in a communicative way until he was 5, and struggled to keep up academically.

“He does everything he can to engage and he’s got the best outlook … but to have a conversation, unless you’re talking about running, is difficult for him,” his mother said.

When he was in fourth grade, his parents signed him up for Rolling Thunder, a not-for-profit running club aimed at kids with special needs. The club gave him structure and provided an outlet for his natural ability to run fast. He’s been hooked on the sport ever since.

It was the running that helped him become a better student, Edie Brannigan said. By sixth grade, he was capable of doing age-appropriate work in the classroom.

“The autism serves the running and the running serves the autism,” she said. “He can focus like nobody else can in running. It’s not just about feet and legs, it’s about your head. He has that intense focus and that serves him well. [From there] he was able to absorb information and process it in a way that he never had before. He just kept amazing everyone and excelling.”

So much so that Brannigan was running for the Northport High School cross country team when he was still in eighth grade.

Students high-five Michael Brannigan as he holds his gold medal. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Under Jason Strom’s coaching, Mikey would become the two-mile record holder in the state with a time of 8:45, and by senior year he was recognized as one of the 10 best high school runners in the country.

“It’s been tremendous to see everything he’s gotten to do and experience over the last year,” Strom said in a phone interview. “[I] root for him every step of the way. He’s always been a really good kid and always been very focused and hard working toward his goals, so it’s nice to see that come to fruition.”

Strom said when Brannigan was on the team and went to meets, students from other schools would come up and ask to take pictures with him.

“Mikey transcended the ranks and was a rock star among high school track kids,” he said.

Even though dozens of colleges were interested in scooping him up, Brannigan was unable to attend any of them because his autism makes taking standardized tests like the SATs and ACTs near impossible.

Instead, Brannigan’s been training professionally with the New York Athletic Club under Robinson and going to Suffolk County Community College part-time.

In the last year, he’s trained all over the world, from Berlin to Saudi Arabia to Doha to Toronto and, of course, Rio.

“He’ll have a long career,” Robinson said. “This is what he wants to do. It’s his chosen career. When he has a passion for something he’s going to master it … and he loves the sport of track and field.”

His mother said everything the family was afraid of when Brannigan was a kid — that he wouldn’t be independent or have a job — has been put to rest, but she can’t take any credit for that.

“People say ‘oh you did such a good job [with him]’ to me and I think ‘yeah I don’t think I did that,’” Edie Brannigan said. “I think his success is his alone. He’s so dedicated and gives his all every single day.”

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