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It was a Saturday in January and Mike Brannigan stood stretching in the corrals outside the 200-meter banked track in the historic Armory building on 168th Street in New York City, waiting for the boys 3,200-meters to be called to the starting line at the 20th annual Molloy Stanner Games. In the sea of high school track athletes milling around the building, the senior middle distance runner from Northport (N.Y.) High on Long Island was just another runner going through his pre-race routine.
The 14 entrants were brought on to the track, lined up, and the starter’s gun went off. Mikey, as his friends and competitors know him, settled in toward the middle of the pack—relaxed, smooth. Hurdles trials went on in the infield, pole vault attempts were made, and sand from the long jump pit was raked smooth as the carnival of a big high school track meet went on all around, but Mikey just bided his time as the pack circled the track for the first of 16 laps.
His father, Kevin Brannigan, stood in his usual spot, leaning against the railing at the end of the first turn, craning his neck to watch his son round the bend. It wasn’t until the fourth lap that Mikey moved up until it was just he and two other runners in the front of the pack
“Let them do the work!” Kevin yelled. “Relax the arms!”
Mikey drafted off the leaders for another half mile before the runner in the lead dropped back, leaving just one competitor with Mikey right behind, matching him footfall for footfall.
Then, as the final-lap bell was rung, Mikey unleashed a lethal kick. The sound of the bell and surge of speed on the track had an immediate effect: the surrounding carnival ground to a halt—the athletes in the infield, the coaches in the wings, the spectators in the stands, all raising their heads to attention.
“Here comes Brannigan on the outside. It’s going to be a close race!” crowed the race announcer.
Watching the scoreboard, his father let out a gleeful near-giggle, burying his face in the crook of his elbow in sheer delight.
“When I see him run he’s just another athlete out there,” Kevin would say after the race. “And he’s my son and I have so much pride. I’m sure every father and parent feels that same way, but to know where he came from, it’s so much pride to see him.”
“It’s like he’s not autistic when he runs,” Mikey’s mom, Edie, says. “It goes away.”
Michael Brannigan was diagnosed with autism at 18 months old. When he was three, his parents were told he could end up in a group home and were advised to start getting on waiting lists because the good places had waits of 12 years of more. At five, he spoke unprompted for the first time. At seven, he would discover running and his life would change forever.
Now the defending national champion in the outdoor 3,200-meters, Mikey is one of the best high school middle-distance runners in the country and is beginning to look beyond his high school running career towards his Olympic dreams, starting off with an invitation to train for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro as a dress rehearsal for the traditional Olympics in 2024.
Meanwhile, the special-needs running club that helped him to harness his all-consuming energy, hone his natural talent and launch his running career, is growing up too and is set to expand into a national organization aiming to open new programs in cities across the U.S. this year.
Mikey has a simple message: “You can do anything you want. You have it inside you.”
The moment that Mikey could walk, he could run. And he ran his parents ragged.
“He was hyperactive from birth,” says Edie. “He would run around, Mach-5, running right into the walls. We ended up in the emergency room so many times.”
He would sleep only about every third night. When he finally conked out, his mother would sleep outside his door so he wouldn’t come out of the bedroom and wander. During waking hours, Mikey’s older brother, Patrick, would sometimes help keep watch when Edie had to go to the bathroom. When Edie became pregnant with their third son, Thomas, chasing Mikey became extra challenging.
“We had to know where he was every second,” she says. “Because he would be gone! He would go out the windows. The whole house just became a real lockdown situation. He could never be left alone for a second. It was overwhelming.”
“He was taken home by the mailman a couple times,” Kevin recalls. “He was running down the street and returned by the mailman because he got out the back door. The neighbors—when we started to yell out the windows because Mikey couldn’t be found—everyone would come out of their houses [to help look] once they got to know what was going on around here.”
What was going on was a neurodevelopmental condition that occurs in one in 68 births, according to the CDC.
Officially called autism spectrum disorder, it is five times more prevalent in boys than in girls and is comprised of a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges that present themselves in different ways in every child on the spectrum. Besides his hyperactivity and insomnia (common conditions in autistic children) Mikey also had a speech impediment and a learning disability that further slowed his intellectual and social development.
“He had to be taught everything. Things that kids learn innately, just by living on the planet, he had to be taught, step by step,” Edie says.
At five years old, Mikey could repeat words back to people but didn’t voluntarily communicate. At a special school, he was taught to talk by breaking up words piece by piece. Still, he didn’t speak without being prompted.
Edie, a former manager in charge of computer operations for a credit card authorization company, gave up her plans to return to work in order to stay home and take care of Mikey. To keep the household afloat, Kevin, the supervisor of Parks for the Great Neck, N.Y., parks district, took jobs plowing snow at night and started a marine salvage business and put moorings in place for boats on Long Island Sound.
“I would keep it in the day—I couldn’t look any further than the day,” Kevin says. “But just taking it day by day was hard for me.”
“It wasn’t so much the chasing him around that was exhausting,” Edie says. “It was the fear of autism and what that means—the fear of him not being able to take care of himself or advocate for himself. I didn’t sleep for 10 years, worried about what was going to happen to him when we weren’t there to protect him. That was the worst thing.”
A glimmer of hope came one day on the local playground. Edie would bring Mikey to a different park each day to let him burn off energy and wear himself out. On this day, Mikey made his way across the monkey bars. And then he just hung there, stuck.
“He was hanging from the jungle gym,” Edie recalls. “And I’m looking at him and he’s looking at me and it was kind of like, “What? What.” And he says, “Help me!”
Edie fell to her knees right there on the playground.
“I can still remember that day like it was yesterday,” she says. “I remember what the sky looked like. I remember the other mothers and kids running around. I can see it in my mind’s eye. Because I knew that everything was going to be okay. That if he could do that, he could do anything. That it was coming. Because it was unprompted and situationally appropriate and it was the very first time he did that. It was a breakthrough. As much for him as for me, because it was a spark of hope. ‘Let’s go! Now what do we do?’”
Kevin and Edie signed up Mikey for a series of organized team sports, including soccer and lacrosse. A natural athlete, he was a standout on the field until the rules got complicated and team strategies came into play. Basic rules, like the direction switch at halftime in soccer were difficult for him to grasp.
“He was accepted by his peers because he was an exceptional athlete,” Kevin says. “To a point. Until he did something that they didn’t like. And then you get the ‘What’s the matter with you? You know you’re going the wrong way!’ Then reality struck. As good an athlete as he was running up and down the field, the fundamentals of things that average kids pick up on, Mikey was never going to pick those up.”
Once again, Kevin and Edie were at loose ends. They wanted Mikey to be a part of something not based solely on speech and communication. They had seen that keeping him physically active helped calm him down. Without an outlet for his energy and the social interaction that came with being on a team, they feared he would become even more isolated.
“By chance, that’s when I was at a function for work and I overheard a gentleman talking about his team. And I think about it all the time, how lucky I was that day,” Kevin says.
A member of the Civil Service Employees Association, Kevin was in New York City along with hundreds of other union members to testify as a character witness for a union rep in a disciplinary hearing. The man he happened to overhear was Steve Cuomo, the founder and head coach of Rolling Thunder, a nonprofit special-needs running team based on Long Island.
Rolling Thunder held practice twice a week throughout the year on a college campus about 25 miles from the Brannigans’ home. It integrated athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities with their typical peers and competed in mainstream road races, track meets and national competitions such as the Junior Olympics.
“I mean, what are the chances?” Edie marvels at the chance encounter. “Everything happened exactly the way it was supposed to.”
Cuomo still remembers the first time he saw Mikey run.
“I said to his father, Just let him go easy,” he recalls. “Easy lasted walking in the door and the first straightway. And from there on in, he chased every older guy and wanted to stay with them and I thought, You can’t teach that. You can’t teach that spirit.”
Steve turned to Kevin and said, “You didn’t tell me he could run.”
“We never thought it was a good thing,” Kevin replied.
It was more than a good thing; it was a lifeline.
Suddenly the boy who ran into walls was winning races and setting records. His ability to run bolstered his self-confidence and he got respect from other kids. “It was like dominos,” Edie says. “He was able to focus in school and he was being accepted by his typical peers and that confidence made him do better in the schoolwork and then he was more a part of things and it just steamrolled. It changed everything for him.”
Running is the perfect sport for kids on the autistic spectrum, Cuomo says.
“For years we’ve been trained to think, ‘Oh, he’s on the spectrum, he can’t run,’ or, ‘He’s intellectually delayed, he can’t run.’ Well you know, you don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to put one foot in front of the other, and as far as somebody who’s on the autistic spectrum this is the best sport in the world. It’s repetition—left, right, left, right—there’s rules, there’s boundaries, there’s compulsion. It’s everything the disability feeds. I don’t have to remember who to throw the ball to, I don’t have to remember what play I have to do, I don’t have to socialize. And the big key is, for some of the kids who are touch-sensitive or sound-sensitive, this is their self-stimulation. This is their hug. We have a boy who just wants to run because the wind goes in his hair. So this is a hug to these kids.”
It was clear that running was good for Mikey but it took some time before his parents would realize that Mikey was good for running. The race that opened Edie’s eyes to his real talent in the sport was the 2009 Marine Corps Marathon 10K in Washington, D.C. Mikey was 12-years-old.
“We were standing at the finish line and we’re watching the first runners start to cross [the finish line]. There was a curve coming up so you couldn’t see far, and someone said, ‘Is that Mikey?’ I was like, ‘That can’t be Mikey. That can’t be Mikey. How could that be Mikey?’ It was Mikey! He came in 22nd. There were Marines in that race. Then I knew. That moment I knew—this is going to be big.”
Twenty-second in a field of 5,480 runners, Mikey had finished the race in 38:36 with a searing 6:12 mile pace.
He was just getting started. In seventh grade, Mikey broke five minutes in the mile. By the end of that year, he had beaten every kid at the middle school level. He needed more competition. Someone suggested that he join the high school team, so in eighth grade Mikey tried out for the Northport High varsity cross-country squad.
From Day One, Mikey showed that he deserved to be there, says his high school coach, Jason Strom. “This sport is pretty cut and dry,” Strom says. “If you can run a certain time that puts you in a group of guys, then you belong there.”
Strom quickly learned that he had to curb his sarcastic nature with Mikey, who sees things in black and white and would take his comments literally. “I’d say, ‘Guys go get lost,’ and he goes off and gets lost. Simple, simple things like that.”
Since those early days, Mikey has accomplished a lot as a Northport Tiger: He won the NXN New York Regional race to qualify for Nike Cross Nationals in his junior year. He helped his high school team nearly break a national 4-mile relay record in Seattle last June and was invited to the Nike Elite Camp in Oregon later in the summer. He has been featured in USA Today, Runner’s World, on The Dr. Oz Show and NBC Nightly News. He was personally honored as a USA Track and Field All America by 1996 Olympic decathlon champion Dan O’Brien. But the pinnacle arguably came last June when Mikey added the title national champion to his résumé and led two other Northport teammates in finishing under nine minutes in the 3,200 meters at nationals in Greensboro, N.C.
Before the race, Mikey’s coach had showed the his runners an SI story from 1975 about a high school in Indiana that fielded the first trio of teammates from a single school to run under nine minutes in the two-mile. That day, the Tigers became the second school to do it when twins Tim and Jack McGowan came in third (8:56.60) and fourth (8:57.57), respectively, behind Mikey’s first place 8:53.59. They are the first group of teammates to do it on the same day, in the same race.
Mikey’s memories of that day are vivid:
“It was a hot, humid day in the mid-80 degrees. The breeze was light and the sun is hitting you down on the track. And your ass is burning and your hair is sweating,” he recalls. “I said I’m gonna win this race and I did.”
Crossing the finish line he thought to himself, “I’m a national champion and I set a personal best and I know I can keep goin’.”
“It was a great, special moment,” he says with a smile.
Now the McGowans have graduated and Mikey is the lone senior middle distance runner on Northport High’s team this year. He had an uneven fall cross-country season, on one week and off the next. He failed to qualify for the prestigious Nike Cross Nationals he competed in the year before and he finished a disappointing seventh in the state public schools Class A title meet but he ended the season on a high note, winning his last sanctioned meet of the season, the New York state Federations Championship, which pits runners from all classifications in public, private and parochial schools against each other, in 15:30.4.
His recent nation-leading 1,500 meters time at the Molloy Stanner games wasn’t his lifetime best, but his race was executed perfectly and was all part of a plan to peak at the end of the indoor season.
Mikey summed up his race strategy thusly: “Sit in cruise and follow the leaders like a train and whoosh! you shoot out like a cannon. When you hear that bell? You go. You give it all you’ve got.”
Up in the stands that day, his high school coach marveled at the picture-perfect race his star had just run. “I couldn’t have scripted it any better for him,” Strom said.
Mikey had come a long way from the days of gutting out races with sheer will and a go-for-broke pace straight out of the gates.
“It used to be, when he first got here, the gun went off and he was just going to run as hard as he could for as long as he could and there were no real tactics or pacing abilities,” Strom said. “That’s the thing he’s learned most, which is how to pace himself, how to figure out a race and learn how to win races using different strategies.”
Off the track, Mikey is still the boy with autism that he always has been. Certain aspects of daily life will always be a challenge for him but he’s come a long way there too, and he knows it.
“I was diagnosed with autism, a disability,” Mikey says. “It affected a little bit of my life and I improve on that and I’m here today. I’m grateful for God. And my talent. I’m proud of this moment, to where I am today.”
Like anyone, he has dreams; dreams of Olympic glory, the chance to train in Oregon at his mecca, Hayward Field, and the chance to compete for a Division I college.
Mikey continues to be a living, breathing contradiction. He struggles in certain subjects in school, but taught himself algebra the summer before his freshman year and holds his own among his typical peers with a 2.5 GPA. He is not often at ease in social situations but recently went on an overnight college visit. He has trouble communicating in person but he is prolific on Instagram and Twitter. And for a young man who doesn’t express feelings very well, he has a lot of them. The silent tornado of a toddler has grown into a thoughtful, sweet, shy, loving and affectionate young man with a wicked sense of humor.
“That’s the beauty of autism,” Edie says. “And that’s part of the journey. At first [autism] can be ugly, but you start to see how beautiful it is and how it affects everyone around him. I mean, I don’t walk around my life inspiring people. He does. He’s amazing. He is exactly the way he is supposed to be, the way he was meant to be.”
Now Mikey has been invited by the U.S. Olympic Committee to train for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, and if all goes well, the 2020 games in Tokyo, with the aim of competing in the traditional Olympic Games in 2024. The two-step process to make the U.S. Paralympic team involves getting his international Paralympic license—in Mikey’s case, he would be classified as T20, which covers athletes with intellectual disabilities—and qualifying for the 1,500 meters, the only middle-distance race run at that level.
The first part of that equation is a given, the second seems only a technicality: the B standard for the 1,500 meters in Mikey’s classification is 4:04 and the A standard is 3:58. He more than meets those thresholds. Mikey’s best time in the 1,500? A 3:51.58 last June at the New York state meet, en route to a 4:07.84 finish in the 1,600 meters.
By those calculations, not only would he would qualify for 1,500 in Rio, he would medal. The winner of the event at the 2012 London Paralympics was a 34-year-old man from Iraq who won in 3:58.49. The silver and bronze medalists, both from Poland, finished in 3:59.45 and 3:59.53. Basically, if Mikey Brannigan wants it, he not only qualifies for the U.S. team in Rio, he is sitting on a Paralympic gold medal if he can get there.
Rolling Thunder, which started out with just 15 members in 1998 and now has more than 200, is also gearing up for a bigger stage. Cuomo, a former collegiate runner himself, started Rolling Thunder when his son, Steve, who has cerebral palsy and autism, needed a challenge beyond the Special Olympics, which caters exclusively to athletes with disabilities. An outspoken advocate for inclusion in sports, Cuomo preaches treating his athletes like anyone else.
“I don’t profess to cure autism but I know I can make these kids’ lives better. And that’s what this is about. Not just running. My kids can survive in the real world when they’re done. I don’t want 50 meters and a hug,” he says. “Don’t change the rules. Fire a gun—first guy who gets to the finish, wins. That’s it.
Now Rolling Thunder is set to launch a national organization called Thunder USA, with plans to start similar special-needs running programs in other cities across the country this year.
“We’re about to open up other chapters across the country basically because of kids like Mikey,” Cuomo says. “I believe there are other Mikeys out there in the world. He has a gift that was exposed to this running world. And because of that exposure, you saw the blossoming. There are other kids that have that talent.”
On a recent weekday, Kevin pulled up to the St. Joseph’s College campus parking lot in Patochogue, N.Y., with Mikey in the passenger seat of his white pickup truck. “Good memories here, good memories here,” Mikey said as he looked out at the athletic center where he had run countless laps as a child.
Inside, Steve Cuomo was running Rolling Thunder practice in full throat:
“When I say pick it up, you run as fast as you can! If you walk you do it again. And don’t tell me you gotta go to the bathroom.”
To a runner trotting by: “Are you kidding me? I know you can go a hell of a lot faster. Let’s go!”
“Attagirl, Sam! Don’t you dare quit on me. You’re not tired, are you?”
Mikey credits Steve’s no-nonsense, tough-love coaching with getting him where he is today.
“He taught me about life,” Mikey says. “About being a good person, a good athlete, whatever you do. He helped me get there. If it wasn’t for Steve Cuomo, where would I be right now? He’s a special guy to me. He believes in me.”
As Mikey stepped on to the track, the current crop of Rolling Thunder kids and parents clustered around him, their own homegrown running celebrity and personal hero.
“You’re incredible,” said Dennis Rindone Sr., as he reached out to shake Mikey’s hand. “You’re the reason he’s here,” he said, gesturing toward his son Dennis Jr., a six-year-old on the spectrum who had recently run a 5K road race in about 46 minutes. His boy was only supposed to run the first mile, but he just kept going.
Sue Rudnicki of Holtsville, N.Y., was also there with her two boys, Aaron, 11, and Jaden, seven. Aaron is a selective mute whom Cuomo calls his “silent assassin” for his quiet demeanor and deadly kick and a “Mini Mikey,” for his competitive promise. Aaron started running with Rolling Thunder last June and has already completed a 5K in an impressive 23:25. His mother and brother join along at Rolling Thunder practices.
Rudnicki’s boys don’t know about all of Mikey’s accomplishments but they know enough. “They know he’s a special boy who found freedom through running. “ she says. “He’s an inspiration; Aaron took a picture with Mikey at a fundraiser earlier this year and hung it on the wall.”
Life changed in her household not long after her sixth grader discovered running. “You find something you feel good about when the world before was a confusion,” she says of Aaron’s relationship with the sport. “The self-confidence has trickled over into his home life. He takes more pride, cleans his room. In school he has more focus, he raises his hand more.”
Sounds familiar. It turns out Mikey hasn’t just been running races all these years— he’s been blazing trails.
“You can put your mind to school, to life, to hobbies you’re good at instead of running,” he says. “There’s lots more. It’s however God created you. You have hands, you have legs, you have a brain. You have everything you need.”