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.
Published: December 5, 2013 Running Times
|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: http://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/how-running-changed-life-boy-autism-n194051
Another article about Mike from Runners World: http://www.runnersworld.com/runners-stories/runner-with-autism-finds-success-on-the-track