Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ryan Blume Blind Cross Country Runner Overcomes Obstacles, Leads His Summit High School Cross Country Team

By Jim Lambert,  New Jersey Star Ledger

They are two runners on a late-afternoon workout, and side-by-side they gobble up long stretches of leaf-covered sidewalks and tree-lined streets as they weave their way through a busy North Jersey community. As the miles pass and they settle into the run, they are lulled by a setting sun and rhythmic breathing patterns until …
Step up!”
“Tree on the left!”
“Step down!”

When Ryan Blume trains with his Summit High School cross-country teammates, Leland Jones is usually right by his side -- letting him know what’s coming. They have been buddies since the fourth grade, and Jones -- favored to repeat as Union County champion on Friday -- looks out for his friend because Blume, 17, is legally blind.
On every run, he is one step from danger and serious injury.
“I want to make sure Ryan knows something is there,’’ Jones said. "I don’t want him to fall or crash.”
Blume, a senior, was born with oculocutaneous albinism type 1. Like most forms of albinism, it results in lack of pigments in the hair and skin, causing them to appear lighter or white. The condition also affects Blume’s vision, which is 20/200 and 20/400 and uncorrectable.
He can’t see detail. He has no depth perception, limited peripheral vision and extreme sensitivity to light, which is why he always wears a hat and sunglasses outside.

Imagine running blindly. Obstacles come out of nowhere. Cars. Pedestrians. Tree roots. Broken sidewalks. Curbs. Rocks. Street signs. Slippery storm drains. Each step requires untold courage – and faith that, thousands of time each day, the ground will be there to meet your sneaker.
''Like a race-car driver, there’s always that thought in the back of your mind that I can fall or crash,” Blume said. “But that doesn’t stop me.'’
And even though his friend has been there for every step, he’s still amazed by it all.
“Running is hard enough when you can see everything,” Jones said. “I can’t imagine doing it while being legally blind. I don’t think I could do it.”
Coaches and runners around Union County are amazed at what Blume has accomplished.  
But Blume isn’t just doing it. He’s an elite runner.

“He does more than just participate,” Summit coach Neal Sharma said. “He competes at a very high level.”
Based on his times, Blume would be the No. 1 runner on a lot of the state’s cross-country teams. He finished in the top half at last fall’s Meet of Champions. But don’t be fooled. The kid isn’t simply gliding through life with Jones as his guide. Someone can’t be there all the time. That’s why, during his sophomore year, Blume took a bad fall in the final descent at the Shore Coaches Invitational at Holmdel Park.

"I thought it was flat, but really it was tilted and I didn’t realize that,” he said. “I wrenched my back. But I got right back up on the horse and finished.’’
That’s how Blume lives his life -- determined to overcome the odds, not letting his condition get him down or stop him from chasing his dreams. His attitude and passion for running have enabled him to become one of the best runners on a Summit team ranked No. 8 in the state.

''Ryan’s the toughest kid on the team and has never ever once complained or made an excuse,’’ said Sharma, who was Blume’s sixth-grade English teacher. “We wouldn’t be the team we are now without Ryan.’’

Blume embraces who he is, often cracking jokes about himself.
''My condition isn’t a stigma,” he said. “It’s part of me and just something I have to get around. I just do the best I can, run as fast as I can -- and try not to fall.”
He laughs. The sense of humor comes in handy, like a dry pair of socks in a gym bag. There are dozens of what-if stories. Blume almost took a spill on a slick Van Cortlandt Park course in the Bronx at the Manhattan Invitational this month.

''There were sharp turns, big hills, it was a bit wet and I had never run there before,” Blume said. “I stumbled a bit, like I do in lots of races.
He finished 21st that day, third on his team, to help Summit win the C Division race.
While Sharma looks out for Blume, the cross-country community helps, too. Sharma scratched Summit from the Shore Coaches Meet at Holmdel on Oct. 4 partly because of how poor weather could have impacted Blume.

Last year, before the Meet of Champions, Sharma contacted Holmdel Park and asked if there was anything park officials could do to assist Blume on a course where he’d previously fallen. Holmdel Park staff spray-painted roots and other trouble spots, and Blume ran what he called his best race ever, a 16:56 at the Meet of Champions, making him the fifth-fastest Summit runner ever on that 3.1-mile course.
Meet director Jack Martin did the same thing at Warinanco Park for the Union County Conference Championships on Oct. 14. Blume placed fifth to help Summit win the Mountain Division title.
“When I race, I see the jerseys ahead of me,” he said. “It’s like being in a tunnel, where you are focused on the light at the end and you’re trying to get out. It’s a bit of a blur. I’m very grateful, and appreciate all the accommodations.”

So does his mother, Beverley, who still finds the races nerve-wracking.
''It’s terrifying. It all looks flat to him,'' she said. ''It’s scary because he’s going fast down these hills. But he’s very confident, so I am very confident in him. Ryan has always been the kind of kid that puts his mind to something and does it. I don’t think anything could stop him from running.''

Blume has been racing practically since he could walk, with the support of family and friends. He has been embraced by the community and running fraternity, but that wasn’t the case when he lived abroad. Before seventh grade, Blume’s father, Chris, took a job in Hong Kong, and Blume’s whole world changed.

"Ryan never had a problem here, but over there they called him a ghost and they would be afraid to touch him,’’ his mother said. ''Some of the meaner kids would punch him and come up behind him and flick him.”
The experience in Hong Kong changed her son, she said.
In his college essay, he wrote about how determined he was to be who he is and look the way he looks and never judge people by the way they look,” she said. “If he sees kids getting bullied, he stops it. He volunteers at a soup kitchen on the lower East Side. He feels it’s important to help other people.''

Blume, however, said he wouldn’t take back his time in Hong Kong.

''I had negative experiences and dealt with people who were less accepting than what I was used to, but those experiences influenced me to choose mutual aid over mutual aggression,'' he said.
Summit is a slight favorite to snap No. 13 Westfield’s five-year reign at the Union County Championships. Blume could add to his legacy in that race, but his place in Summit High School lore is already secure.
''We always talk about what legacy each senior will leave behind,’’ Sharma said. “We will always bring up Ryan’s name whenever kids say they can’t do something. We will remind them of what Ryan Blume overcame.''

Next fall, Blume will start on a college legacy when he runs cross-country and track at Vassar in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

''When I was a little kid, I never thought I’d be an athlete and do a sport, and the idea that I reached this level in high school and the idea I can continue in college is just crazy to me,’’ he said. “I couldn’t imagine my life if I didn’t have running."

“Running has presented the same challenges I’ve always dealt with, just at a faster pace. I guess to a certain extent you can call it blind faith."

Great Video of Ryan:

Monday, October 6, 2014

Mike Brannigan Not Slowed by Autism-- Keeps Making Strides

Note: Mike Brannigan has Autism and is one of the top runners in the country, a 4:07 miler,
he recently ran in the Championship race at the Shore Coaches Meet at Holmdel, NJ.

By Liam Boylan-Pett      
Published: December 5, 2013 Running Times
Mike Brannigan NXN Northport HS
Mike Brannigan led his team to NXN with a win at the New York regional.
Nestled in a strip mall in East Northport, N.Y., between a Subway and the Morning Dew Foot Spa, is a pizza joint, Joey’s of Mulberry street. Amidst the tables and chairs and pizzas on display, a framed picture hangs on the wall across from the cash register and next to the Coke machine. In the picture is Mikey Brannigan, a square-jawed athlete with dark hair who is running in a race.
     Brannigan is a loyal customer. He runs cross country for Northport High School just two miles away. The night before every race, Brannigan, a junior, gets his lucky meal from Joey’s: the grilled eggplant.
It has been pretty lucky lately. On Nov. 16, Brannigan took second place at the New York state meet. Two weeks later, he won the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) New York regional race at Bowdoin Park in Wappinger Falls, N.Y. His winning time of 15:29 for 5,000m was just two seconds off the course record and 11 seconds clear of second place. He led his Northport team to a second-place finish, which was enough to earn the team an invite to the NXN championships in Portland on Dec. 7.
"At the two mile mark Brannigan exploded.." Mile Split
“I am so proud of our team,” says Brannigan. “We've really trained hard, and the experience of traveling out west to such an important race is amazing. We are all stoked.” Northport is the first team from Long Island to ever make NXN, where the top 22 teams in the country compete for a national team title.
Brannigan is a lot like the rest of his teammates. He loves SportsCenter and The Big Bang Theory. His favorite book is Pre: The Story of Steve Prefontaine. He enjoys math and science in school. And he drives his mom crazy with his music choices: classic rock staples Motley Crue, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Aerosmith top his most-played list.
There is one thing different about Brannigan, though: When he was 18 months old, he was diagnosed with autism.
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the brain’s development, impeding social and communication skills. The Brannigan family knew something was different with Mike when he went from crawling to running at age 1. He didn’t speak until he was 4. He was impulsive, sensitive to touching, and hyperactive as a toddler. He was running so much that therapists had to teach him how to walk with his mother, Edith Brannigan, without running away. It took six months. “We really thought he would never be able to function in the world,” Edith says.
The Brannigan family feared Mike was on track to end up in a group home. He attended the Developmental Disabilities Institute until he was 6 before enrolling in the Northport school district, where he was in the special education program.
When he was 7, Brannigan caught a break when he joined the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program, a running, walking, and wheelchair racing team serving challenged individuals.
Says Edith: “It was like the hand of God came down from the sky and shifted our life completely. It changed everything. It gave us hope.”
The Brannigans knew Mike could run, but how fast was another thing. At the first Rolling Thunder practice he attended, Mike tore around the track, rolling past seasoned athletes.  It was the first time Steven Cuomo, the head coach, president and founder of Rolling Thunder, saw him running. Cuomo turned to Kevin Brannigan, Mike’s father, and said, “You didn’t tell me he could really run.”  Kevin told Cuomo, “We never exactly thought it was a good thing.”
Brannigan excelled in Rolling Thunder throughout the years, and in more than just running. “The best part of the whole thing is that his academics started to improve,” Edith says.
“Within two years, so fourth and fifth grade, he became very close to age appropriate. And I know even though its not scientifically proven,” she continues, “it’s the running that did it. I saw it with my own eyes.”
Now in high school, Brannigan has a 3.3 GPA and has passed his New York Regents. He is planning to go to college and wants to run for a Division 1 school, as he said in a Facebook message, “against the best in the country.” The way he’s running now, he’s one of the best in the country already. He’ll have a chance to prove that at NXN on Saturday.
“The sport of running is ideal for people with autism,” Cuomo says. “[Kids with autism] have trouble socializing, they can’t look you in the eye. The last time I looked, you don’t have to give a speech when you cross the finish line. Just get there first. Just run, baby. Just go.”
Cuomo, who is described jokingly by Edith Brannigan as “a nut job and a saint,” has coached hundreds of athletes that have come through Rolling Thunder, including his own son, who has autism. He doesn’t mince words. “I’m not the Easter bunny, I’m not Santa Claus, I’m not a magician,” he says. “I’m just their coach, and I treat them like you would anyone else.”
"Brannigan all alone at the final plateau..." Milesplit
Cuomo says that an autistic athlete shouldn’t be babied, but given a set of rules. “Give the athletes specific instructions and go from there,” Cuomo says. “If you do it enough times, the kids start to visualize what they’re going to do. They learn visually.”
Brannigan’s success is case in point. He has the body of a runner: strong, chiseled legs, a powerful upper body. A coach tells him to run a pace in a workout; Brannigan will do his best to hit it. It’s routine now.
Cuomo is thrilled with Brannigan’s performances of late. “It’s gonna end with Mikey being on an Olympic team,” he says. “I didn’t say a Paralympics team. I said Olympic team. Then we’re gonna blow the lid off what people think these athletes can and cannot do.”
First, Brannigan hopes to make some noise at NXN. His Northport team could as well.
“We couldn’t be more excited about qualifying for NXN,” says Jason Strom, the coach of Northport. Brannigan is a junior, but the next four runners on the team are all seniors. This could be Northport’s last shot at NXN for a few years.
The boys of Northport know how special this is, and Brannigan knows, too. “I am so proud of our team,” he says. “We've really trained hard. I am so happy that we'll do it together.  We'll always have this experience together.”
Strom treats all his athletes the same, including Brannigan. “From day one,” says Strom, “we’ve tried to treat him like any normal athlete, hold him accountable for everything.”
Brannigan thrives in the atmosphere. He’s often the first one out at practice, the first to get his stretching in, the first to start his warm-up. Tim McGowan, the team’s No. 2 runner, says, “Mikey is incredibly dedicated to this sport. Speaking as one of his training partners, his dedication keeps me on my toes and pushes me as well as my teammates.” The team helps him, too. Brannigan’s mother noted how much they take care of him and are aware of his shyness because of his condition.
It’s a team effort all around. “Our assistant coach, Bob Berkley, taught me to set goals since my freshman year,” Brannigan says. “I write down my goals as I go along and then cross them off, one by one. It keeps me focused.”
The next two things on the goal list are a top 3 individual finish at NXN and helping the team finish in the top 10. Brannigan is also looking ahead to indoor and outdoor track. “Keep an eye on me,” he warns.  “This is my year.”
“No kid with autism has done this,” says Cuomo. There are nine NXN regions around the country, so only 9 boys and 9 girls each year are winners. And Brannigan is one of them.
“Mikey is giving every single parent that has a handicap child hope,” Cuomo says.
At NXN, Strom will give Brannigan a race plan. It will be similar to the one at NXN New York, where he’ll sit in the pack for the first two miles before ratcheting up the effort and kicking it home the last mile. “I think Mike never limits himself,” says Strom. “That’s one of the greatest things about him. He just wants to be in it, and he’s in it all the time.”
Video of Mike from NBC:
Another article about Mike from Runners World: