By Victoria Espinoza

Paralympian and 1500-meter gold medalist Mikey Brannigan was welcomed back from Rio with deafening cheers and “USA” chants this past week.

The 20-year-old Northport resident returned to Northport Middle School Sept. 23, and hundreds of students lined the front entrance with homemade signs, waved American flags, and stretched out their arms for the opportunity to get a high-five from Brannigan.

Some tried to sum up what the perseverant athlete’s story meant to them.

“He can do so much,” one student said of Brannigan. “He won a gold medal in the Paralympics, what else can you say?”

Another student said she was inspired by Brannigan’s journey to victory.

“He’s autistic and was able to do all this stuff,” she said. “He overcame everything and worked so hard.”

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

Brannigan was diagnosed with autism at a young age, and began running as a member of the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program, a nonprofit organization that trains athletes with developmental disabilities.

Throughout Brannigan’s middle and high school careers, he made a name for himself as a runner. He was named Sports Illustrated’s February High School Athlete of the Month in 2015, and placed first in the T20 1500 meters at the International Paralympic Committee World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar last year. T20 represents the classification level Brannigan was designated as a Paralympic athlete.

In August, Brannigan ran a 3:57 mile at the Sir Walter Miller meet in North Carolina, which solidified his place in Olympic qualifications in the T20 Paralympic classification.

The gold medal winner spoke to Northport Middle School students in the auditorium, and urged them to never give up on their dreams and study hard.

“Find a passion you love and never give up,” Brannigan said. “You always have to be a student-athlete. Always be a student-athlete. Do good in the classroom, find a subject you love.”

While Brannigan was in middle school, he said he kept setting goals to get better and improve.

Some of Brannigan’s former teachers teared up after seeing him and said how proud they were to see all he has accomplished.

Principal Tim Hoss was among those proud fans, and he told Brannigan repeatedly how delighted the school was for him and how happy he was with the environment the students made for Brannigan.

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

“Northport is an epicenter of patriotism, the waving of the flags and the cheering and the way you brought it home for Mikey makes us very proud,” he said.

Hoss led a Q&A segment, and asked Brannigan questions from students, including how he feels when he’s running so fast.

“I have so much energy,” Brannigan said, and the crowd laughed along with him. “It makes me a better runner.”

Hoss also asked how Brannigan felt as he completed his Olympic run.

“When I crossed the finish line in Rio, I went through the line and thought ‘don’t stop,’” he said. “And I didn’t. I did it. I was happy.”

When Brannigan was asked to give advice to the young students, he preached self-love.

“Work hard, and believe in yourself. …you’ll have good days and bad days, but never give up,” he told the students. “You have the talent inside of your heart and you’re strong enough to fight through. And that’s what I did.”