By Janee Law
Since he started running at the age of 7, Michael “Mikey” Brannigan, who has autism, has been an unstoppable force. Growing in his talent, Brannigan is now making strides overseas. He’s training to compete in the T20 1,500-meter final at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, which are set to begin later this month.
Brannigan, 19, of East Northport, qualified to compete in Rio after posting a 3:50.05 time in the T20 1500-meter race at the Paralympic trials, hosted in North Carolina on July 2.
He said his goal is to win a gold medal at the Paralympic games. His first preliminary meet is scheduled for Sept. 13.
“It’s going to be fun, and I’m so excited to compete and represent the United States,” Brannigan, who graduated from Northport High School in 2015, said.
In the month that followed the trials, Brannigan became the first T20-classified athlete to break the four-minute mile at the Sir Walter Miler Event in Raleigh North Carolina on Aug. 5. There, he ran a mile in 3:57.58.
“Everybody has just been really supportive of Mikey going to this next level,” Sonja Robinson, his coach, said. “It’s been a good year for him so far, but the icing on the cake will definitely be going to Rio, performing well and getting that medal.”
Before he was 2 years old, Brannigan was diagnosed with an intellectual disability. He was later diagnosed with autism at age 3.
When he was 7, he joined the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program, a non-profit organization that helps train mentally and physically disabled athletes. There, Brannigan mastered his craft and, after finishing a mile in five minutes when he was in seventh grade, he was brought up to the Northport High School track team as an eighth grader.
Brannigan said that, once he started running, he found his passion in the sport.
“I have a good talent and I fight hard to do it,” he added. “It gives me motivation and inspiration.”
Robinson, who has been coaching Brannigan for a year, said she credits the Rolling Thunder and the Northport High School teams for helping Brannigan build a foundation in loving the sport and giving it his all during races.
“They were very accepting of him, they taught him how to work on a team and how to be a teammate,” she said. “They did a really good job giving him that, and giving him the confidence to be able to do it on a big stage.”
Brannigan’s talent is known worldwide, having placed first in the men’s 1,500-meter in the IPC Athletics World Championship at Suhaim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, Qatar in October 2015. In that race, Brannigan defeated London champion Peyman Nasiri Bazanjani, of Iran, by three one-hundredths of a second, according to Robinson.
In Rio, Brannigan is set to run on the courses built for the 2016 Olympic Games. He said he trains two hours a day to prepare for Rio.
Robinson said she and Brannigan are fine-tuning – mentally, emotionally and physically – honing in on the skills that will prepare him for race day.
“That means running some workouts in the morning around what we think is going to be his race time, but also we’ll do a race or a hard workout at night just in case they change the schedule,” she said. “Your body has to be ready to run when you need to, so you need to know any adjustments you need to make in order to perform your best depending upon time of day.”
Brannigan added that he is never going to give up as he continues to train hard for the Paralympics and prepare for any challenges ahead.
“Mikey is an example of being tenacious, having that pursuit of a goal and keeping his mind on what he really wants to accomplish,” Robinson said. “When he achieves something, he definitely savors the moment and, when things don’t go well, he doesn’t beat himself up.”
She continued, “He never gives up, he keeps trying to do better every single day and he doesn’t let the autism get in the way of him achieving his goal and crippling his dreams. Mikey is a really good example of making sure your child finds something they’re passionate about and that they can pursue and really love and enjoy.”
With that, Brannigan said he loves the sport of running, particularly long distance running.
“It’s my favorite,” he added. “I’m in love with it and I go after it.