Our jobs are rewarding. We have a lot of amazing moments as recruiting coaches here at NCSA – we get to celebrate athletic & academic achievements with our families, share in the excitement of their college decision process and work with some of the most amazing kids of the next generation. These moments add up each day & make this a job that offers so much more. The Brannigan Family is a constant source of inspiration in my work. Mike found himself through running & in the past year has gone from someone who was good at racing to a leader ranked in the top 15-40 in the nation in his events. His season is not over yet & his career is far from done. His family understands the trail he is blazing & the path that so many others can follow & I am proud to have an opportunity to be a part of his process. Keep running fast Mikey – you have thousands of finish lines ahead of you – I hope for you break the tape on each one! – Head Track & Field recruiting coach Alison Vincent
Mike Brannigan stares up at the ceiling of the Track and Field Center at the Armory in Manhattan as an athletic trainer dresses a bloody six-inch gash in his left calf. It’s February 15, and Brannigan just lost out on his dream to race well in the prestigious Millrose Games. In the second turn of the last lap in the boys’ high school mile, Brannigan–perfectly positioned in third place for a final kick on the Armory’s 200-meter track–got tangled up in a jumble of adolescent legs. He was spiked, and his sliced leg tightened up, slowing his stride to a shuffle.
Brannigan could have stepped off the track. Instead, he finished out the race, placing 13th, next to last. “I didn’t want to drop out,” he says in the trainer’s room, and then continues, as if repeating the mantra that went through his head, “Keep on going. . .finish the race.”
That measured, focused reaction wouldn’t likely surprise anyone who has ever run with Brannigan. The 17-year-old high school junior from East Northport, a north shore town on Long Island, New York, is considered one of the most talented high school runners in the east, a reputation garnered by his competitive nature, uncompromising work ethic, and almost compulsive need to run.
Brannigan was diagnosed with autism at 2 years old. Like many others born with the developmental disorder, he was nonverbal until the age of 5, and he had obsessive tendencies, like lining up his toys in neat rows. But his impulsive, hyperactive behavior posed greater challenges: He’d climb up on top of the refrigerator. He’d unlock his car seat and move about his parents’ SUV while it was en route. And he’d race out of the house into the street. Therapists had to teach Brannigan how to slow down and walk with his mother, Edie. That process took six months.
“We put on a brave face,” Edie says. “We kept thinking that somehow Mikey would just overcome all this. But inside, we were broken, overwhelmed with fear.”
Brannigan’s life changed the day his father, Kevin, took him to meet a Long Island group for kids and young adults with disabilities now called the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Club. Steve Cuomo, the club’s founder and coach, invited 9-year-old Brannigan to join the group’s track workout. “He wanted Mikey to go with the kids just starting out,” Kevin says. “But Mikey took off like a rocket. Here’s this 9-year-old, chasing down these fast guys in their teens and early 20s.”
Cuomo remembers watching the boy keep stride with the leaders. “I knew this kid had a gift,” he says.
A gift that became ever more apparent. In 2009, Edie signed up her son for the Marine Corps Marathon 10-K. Brannigan finished 22nd out of 5,480 runners in 38:36, or 6:13 per mile. He was 12 years old. By the time Brannigan was in middle school, his natural ability had attracted the attention of a local high school coach, Jason Strom, who asked Brannigan to join his team. Competing alongside older boys can be daunting for any eighth-grader–but especially for one with autism, which often inhibits social skills. “We worried if the guys would accept him,” Edie says.
The team did; the fact that Brannigan was so good may have helped. “He spent that season as our top runner,” Strom says. “I’ve tried to just treat him like any other kid. He’s not a runner with autism. He’s Mikey, he’s part of our team, and I expect him to do everything everybody else does. Which he does. . .and more.”
That means 50- to 60-mile training weeks (requiring morning and afternoon runs) during the fall and spring seasons. He also does 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups every evening and adheres to a clean diet. “He’d probably run three times a day if he could,” his father says. “There’s no off day for Mikey.” And it shows in his PRs: 32:48 for 10-K, 15:45 for 5-K, 3:59 for 1500 meters, 1:57 for 800 meters.
Brannigan takes regular high school classes, with modifications (such as extra time for tests). As a student-athlete with a B average and A+ talent, he is expected to be heavily recruited by colleges next year. “I think the sky’s the limit for Mikey,” says Alison Vincent, a recruiting coach with NCSA Sports in Chicago, who has followed Brannigan’s career. “A lot of us put limits on ourselves. I don’t think Mikey has a concept of what a limit is. For a coach, that’s a dream athlete.”
The source of that drive could, in fact, be his autism. So-called “hyperfocused interest” is a hallmark of the disorder, says Ericka Wodka, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders in Baltimore. Edie suggests that it’s possible her son’s running has, in turn, helped him be so high-functioning in other areas of his life. “After he joined Rolling Thunder, we watched in amazement as his academics improved. He went from being significantly behind his peers to successfully conquering age-appropriate work. And he gained a confidence, almost a swagger, because of his ability to run.”
None of this is lost on Brannigan. “Running changed my life,” he says. “I made new friends. I enjoy that people know me as a runner.” He’s also not afraid to speak about what Edie calls “the 800-pound gorilla in the room.” Asked what he tells people about his disorder, he replies, with a smile, “I’m special.”
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