Autism can't stop elite prep runner Mikey Brannigan

Author: Posted on: Saturday, 14 February 2015 02:51 866 Category: Latest News
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He was diagnosed before the age of 2, and was completely nonverbal until he was 4. The middle of three boys, Brannigan started running through a Long Island-based group called Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program when he was 9, and all it did was give him a sense of belonging and self-esteem, and a sharper and more consistent focus that he’d ever had in his young life.
He is 18 years old and runs hard and runs fast, runs with as much heart as anybody you will ever see. It has always been that way for Mikey Brannigan, out of Northport HS and East Northport, L.I., who goes after the finish line the way a bull goes after a guy with a red flag. Brannigan might not always lead the pack in the nuances of race strategy, but go find an athlete who has more passion about his sport, or whose life has been transformed more by his gift for getting places as fast as he can.

“What a story this young man is,” says Dr. Norbert Sander. “What a story.”

Sander is the president and CEO of The Armory Track and Field Center on 168th St., itself a transformative wonder, a former homeless shelter turned into the busiest indoor track and field venue in the nation. The Armory will host the NYRR Millrose Games next week, and for all the big names who will be competing — Bernard Lagat and Galen Rupp and Mary Cain — Sander is almost as eager to see Brannigan in his event, the boys’ mile, and so will everybody else who knows Brannigan.

“I just want to keep improving,” Brannigan says.

Adds his father, Kevin Brannigan, “When Mikey is out there running, he’s just like every other kid. He’s accepted for who he is.”

Who Brannigan is is one of the elite prep distance runners in the United States, a stature he has achieved despite being autistic. He was diagnosed before the age of 2, and was completely nonverbal until he was 4. The middle of three boys, Brannigan started running through a Long Island-based group called Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program when he was 9, and all it did was give him a sense of belonging and self-esteem, and a sharper and more consistent focus that he’d ever had in his young life.

“He loved it from the beginning,” Kevin Brannigan said. “That’s when everything started to fall into place for him.”

In his first 10K race at 12 years old, Brannigan finished 22nd in a field of almost 5,500, and has been in the fast lane ever since. He won the New York State Federation cross-country title last fall, covering an insanely challenging 5K course in 15 minutes, 30 seconds, doing it a few months after he won the New Balance two-mile national championship, with a personal-best time of 8:53.59.

And just last month at The Armory, Brannigan, a Northport senior, ran 3,200 meters in 9:09.77 — the fastest prep time at that distance in the nation in 2015.

“Every single day is like the first day of practice for Mikey,” says Jason Strom, the Northport track and cross country coach. “Since he has been running with us as an eighth-grader, there hasn’t been one day when he has said, ‘I don’t feel like doing this today.’” Brannigan has received letters of interest from Stanford, Oregon, North Carolina and a raft of other colleges, and while college has long been a dream of his, it’s not clear yet how the process will play out. So Brannigan pushes on. He ran the 1,000 meters against a loaded and tightly clustered field at The Armory Track Invitational last Saturday, when he got boxed in and was disappointed to finish seventh, in 2:28.47.

Strom has been working with Brannigan to stay calm in tight quarters, to learn patience. It’s getting better. Longer distances are Brannigan’s strength, the better to finish with his trademark burst of speed. Brannigan will run in the Section XI state indoor qualifier meet in Brentwood, L.I. this Sunday, and then in the Millrose mile a week from Saturday.

It’s the focal point of Brannigan’s indoor season, another chance to run hard and fast, and underscore the truth he has been proving for years.

“Regardless of where you stand intellectually, everybody can achieve greatness if you find what you want and get after it,” Strom says. “The word autism doesn’t mean that you can’t excel — that you can’t be at the highest level of your sport — because that is (exactly what he has done).”

Brannigan hopes for a fun and exhilarating eight laps when he returns to The Armory for the Millrose Games. You ask him what advice he would give to a young runner.

Brannigan pauses for a few seconds. His gaze turns away briefly, and then comes back. “Just love the sport and find your talent, and keep on improving,” Brannigan says.
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