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Special Olympics

Individuals and groups dived into frigid waters Nov. 23 for the 10th annual Brookhaven Polar Plunge. Photo by Kyle Barr

The icebox temperature of the coastal waters of Long Island Sound keep most away from any bathing activities, but on Nov. 23 the Suffolk County police and other volunteers could barely contain the crowd who rushed in wave after wave to bathe themselves in the frigid Sound off Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai. 

Close to 750 participants joined in the 10th annual Town of Brookhaven Polar Plunge, raising a projected $150,000 for the Special Olympics. Diane Colonna, the regional vice president of development for Special Olympics New York, said it costs about $400 to provide training and to sponsor one athlete per season, though many train and compete over multiple seasons. 

“Most people are not really into jumping into freezing cold waters, but people are doing it — they’re doing it for our athletes,” Colonna said. “What’s really cool is our athletes are doing it as well, and it’s something they can do together.”

She added that the number of participants has been relatively steady over the past several years and is one of the biggest fundraising events for the Special Olympics in New York.

“Our athletes live to the extreme every day in showing they are part of things and want to be included,” she said.

Plungers participated alone or in teams, with some raising several thousand dollars. Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) along with the team Frozen Eagles have raised $2,555 so far. The Port Jefferson High School Varsity Club announced it had 70 students intending to participate in this year’s event, which is about 25 percent of the total population of grades 9 through 12. By the end, the group raised over $11,000, according to club co-adviser Deirdre Filippi, and that donation will help to sponsor approximately 27 athletes. 

“We are incredibly proud of our student athletes and their efforts,” Filippi said. “It truly was a rewarding experience for all.”

Thousands packed Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai for the Town of Brookhaven’s ninth Polar Plunge, an annual event in which brave souls dive into icy waters to raise money for the Special Olympics. All funds raised by the event go toward sports training and competition, health and inclusion programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities looking to compete.

Long Islanders flocked to Mount Sinai’s Cedar Beach Nov. 18 to take a dip into freezing
water with purpose.

The 8th annual Polar Plunge raises money for Special Olympics New York athletes as plungers take a dip or slow crawl into the chilly waters of the Long Island Sound. Special Olympics New York has 71,889 athletes training and competing year-round in 22 Olympics-style sports. Athletes and their families or caregivers are never charged to participate.

It costs $400 to support training and competition for one athlete for one sports season. This year’s Town of Brookhaven event has raised more than $110,000. Team Extraordinary has accumulated the most to date, with funds totaling almost $11,000.

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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Whether you plunged or supported a plunger, Long Islanders flocked to Mount Sinai’s Cedar Beach Nov. 19, dressing up and gathering together with teams to jump in and out of the cold waters as part of the Town of Brookhaven’s seventh annual Polar Plunge.

By registering to plunge, applicants raised money for the athletes of Special Olympics New York.

Special Olympics New York has 67,162 athletes training and competing year-round in 22 Olympics-style sports. Athletes and their families or caregivers are never charged to participate. It costs $400 to support training and competition for one athlete for one sports season.

Residents were “freezin’ for a reason” at Cedar Beach on Saturday, for the Town of Brookhaven’s sixth annual Polar Plunge event.

Some of the countless residents in attendance took the plunge into the chilly waters of the Long Island Sound to help raise money for the athletes of the Special Olympics New York. Plungers who raised at least $125 received a sweatshirt for their efforts.

Members of the Suffolk County Police Department, Nestle Nesquik, Long Island’s My Country 96.1 FM and local government officials, including Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) and Councilman Neil Foley (R-Blue Point), were there to show their support or join the plungers and take a dip in the water.

Despite the breezy weather and cold currents, some residents left the water saying the water wasn’t as chilly as last year.