Running For Gold In The Rio Paralympics

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Mikey Brannigan at the August 2015 ParaPan Games in Toronto
Mikey Brannigan at the August 2015 ParaPan Games in Toronto

His Facebook page is filled with photos from graduation, the beach and friends like any ordinary teenager, but Mikey Brannigan is far from ordinary. In 2015, the son of longtime Great Neck Park District (GNPD) Supervisor Kevin Brannigan and grandson of former GNPD Supervisor Desi Brannigan was the third-fastest high school miler with a time of 4:03, the national champion high school 2 miler in the U.S. with a time of 8:42 and a six-time All-American while running for Northport High School. Endorsed by the New York Athletic Club, Mikey is also the current World Champion and World Record-holder in the T20 category 1500m with a time of 3:50. And, earlier this month, Mikey broke the 4-minute mile with a time of 3:57 at the Sir Walter Miler in Raleigh, NC.

Diagnosed with autism at age 2, Mikey hasn’t let anything stop him. The 20-year-old from East Northport has qualified to run the 1500m in the T20 category in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for Team USA at the 2016 Paralympic Games, a major international multi-sport event for athletes with disabilities, on Sept. 13. And, he’s the favorite to win the gold in Rio.

“Mikey was diagnosed officially with autism at 2 years old,” said his mother Edith Brannigan. “They knew when he was 18 months, but they won’t diagnose until 2 years old. I knew at 12 months that something was wrong, but I didn’t know what exactly,” she continued. “He was running into walls and climbing onto everything. I called Suffolk County Early Intervention. They came and evaluated Mikey and, by 13 months, he was receiving speech, OT, PT and special-ed services in our home five days a week.”

At 18 months old, Mikey started attending the Developmental Disabilities Institute (DDI) in Huntington, which he attended until he was 5 years old when he was mainstreamed in Northport School District for kindergarten. “He didn’t speak unprompted and appropriately until 5 years old,” said Edith.

Mikey’s father, Kevin, who grew up in Kings Point and graduated from Great Neck North High School in 1981, has been a senior supervisor of the GNPD for 33 years, and Kevin’s father, Desi, was supervisor of parks for 33 years when he retired, and later passed away in 1999. Edith grew up in Great Neck, too, and also graduated in 1981, but from Great Neck South High School.

“We would bring Mikey to the pool and rec center, and to the ice rink in Great Neck,” recalled Edith. “He also participated in the summer camp at the GNPD one year at the urging of Superintendent Neil Marin, who wanted to welcome children with disabilities into their program.”

Mikey Brannigan is an elite athlete with autism going to the Paralympics in Brazil this September.
Mikey Brannigan is an elite athlete with autism going to the Paralympics in Brazil this September.

Running was a natural choice for Mikey. “He was always extremely hyperactive and when he started running with Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program at 7 years old and his running became structured, he thrived on it,” explained Edith. “I believe that the structured running changed his brain, to allow him to focus and absorb and retain information. Two years after he started running, he went from ‘special academics’ within the classroom of typical students to age-appropriate academics at the same level as his typical peers. The running transformed him completely—socially, academically and emotionally.”

But, it wasn’t until several years later that his mom knew Mikey was an outstanding runner. “When he was 12 years old in 2009, he ran in the Marine Corps Marathon 10K in Washington DC and came in 22nd with a time of 38:36 out of a field of 5,480 runners,” said Edith proudly. “I knew that day that he was going to change the way people viewed autism and athletics forever.”

In eighth grade, Mikey was brought up to the Northport High School Varsity Cross Country and Track & Field team. “Mikey was top three in the nation in 2015 for track and field,” beamed his mom. “He ran an 8:42 two mile and a 4:03 one mile that spring—and all of his wins until the fall of 2015 were against mainstream runners.”

In 2014, Mikey came in first in the two-mile New Balance Outdoor Nationals and in the New Balance High School National Champion 4×1 Mile Relay. In 2015, he was first in the 1500m and second in the 5000m of the IPC Athletics World Championships, first place in the 1500m U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships and first place in the 1500m Parapan American Games.

The 2015 Northport High School grad has accomplished some amazing feats off the track as well. He was named Sports Illustrated’s February High School Athlete of the Month in 2015, was interviewed on ESPN’s E:60 and has been featured on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and Kate Snow, as well as on the Dr. Oz Show. He also appeared in Runners World Magazine, USA Today and Born to Run, a documentary with 1996 Gold Medalist Dan O’Brien. Plus, the runner was invited to be the guest speaker at the 2014 Nassau County Cross Country Awards Dinner, which can be viewed on YouTube.

“Mikey fully understands competition, winning, setting goals and trying to achieve them,” said his mom. “His future dreams are to continue to improve his personal best times, to compete in the next three cycles of the Olympics, to continue running for the New York Athletic Club and to volunteer to help kids with their running. Mikey wants to inspire all kids to participate in any athletic sport, and wants to continue to be a role model for other people with autism—to show them that there are no limits.”

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Sheri ArbitalJacoby brings more than three decades of publishing experience at national magazines to her position as editor of the Great Neck Record. She also writes decorating, travel, food and green articles for Long Island Weekly and Anton Media Group's special sections.

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