On a humid Saturday morning, Mikey Brannigan, a paralympic gold medalist, and the first ever runner with autism to break the four-minute mile barrier, ran in the opposite direction around the track at John Glenn High School in Elwood.
The world-class athlete was alone, save for the presence of his coach Sonja Robinson, who shouted feedback as he navigated the loop in retrograde.
Right foot, left foot; right foot, left foot.
“Drop your shoulder,” Robinson said. “Drop your shoulder.”
He dropped his left shoulder. The pace was blistering.
“That one was a little hot,” Robinson said. “Too hot.”
He slowed his feet down a little, and went on that way for miles.
Brannigan is headed to Dubai in November to compete in the 1500-meter race at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships. If he wins—and nearly every expert expects him to—he’ll become the three-time defending world champion for the event, and qualify for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo in the process. If Tokyo goes well, Brannigan and his family think he has a strong shot at making it to the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
To succeed in those foreign environments, Brannigan must adapt to countless unfamiliar stimuli. Routine is a crutch for athletes and people with autism alike, so Robinson had him running backwards in the outermost lane on that track in Elwood to teach him pace at an instinctive level, and break any lingering reliance on familiarity.
“This wasn’t a hard workout, but it was a hard workout mentally,” Robinson said. “You can really get dependent on looking at the clock, but when you’re racing with a bunch of guys, you’re just trying to make it through the laps no matter what the pace is. So really feeling that rhythm and staying relaxed is hard to do.”
The humble high school setting was a far cry from the Olympian venue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Brannigan, whose mental capacity falls somewhere between a 6 and 11-year-old level, secured the gold in the 1500-meter race three years ago. Rio’s Estádio Olímpico Nilton Santos plays host to top-level soccer club Botafogo during the Brasileirao season. During the paralympics, it was fitted to hold 60,000 screaming fans.
Brannigan, long established as a titan in the T20 paralympic field for athletes with intellectual disabilities, claimed the gold medal with a final time of 3:51.73, five seconds ahead of second place. He waited for his soundly-beaten competitors to finish, and made a point of shaking each of their hands.
Brannigan is a sportsman at heart because his early life made him so intimately familiar with the sensation of being an outcast. When he was diagnosed with autism at just 18 months old, doctors told his parents they should focus on getting him onto a waiting list for a group home.
Growing up in Northport, Brannigan got his first taste of running as a reward in elementary school. When he would finish a certain amount of classwork or do well on a test, he could run a perimeter or two around the school under the supervision of a teacher. That view of getting to run as a reward rather than a burden has never left him, even as his former hobby turned into the dominant force of his every waking moment.
“Running is freedom,” Brannigan said. “It helps you release stress and makes you feel better. You feel good about yourself and you believe in yourself. Running is a great sport, it’s a passion I love. I don’t let the stress get in my head.”
After high school, Brannigan was denied eligibility to compete in the NCAA for failing to meet their academic qualifiers. He clawed his way to a spot on Team USA through a sponsorship with the New York Athletic Club, competing as a solo runner while others his age enjoyed the resources of multimillion dollar universities to propel them forward.
But despite that, he kept winning and hasn’t stopped yet.
Mikey is something of a test case for his T20 counterparts around the world, the first truly world-class athlete to succeed with an intellectual disability. That guinea-pig status has come with its fair share of difficulties and rough patches, most of which are left to be borne by Robinson and the rest of the Brannigan family.
Many of those rough patches are financial in nature. Without somebody around to guide Mikey, he can’t go out on his own for competitions or training. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) pays for his basic needs during competition, but they haven’t come around to paying for a guide. It’s why the best runner in his field practices at an empty high school track.
That need for accompaniment has led Robinson to become more of a family member than a coach, by her own admission and the admission of the rest of the clan. Originally from Atlanta, she now lives with the Brannigans full time in their East Northport home, and divides household chores with Mikey’s mother Edie and the family.
“If an athlete in a wheelchair comes to a facility, they build a ramp,” Edie said. “Sonja is Mikey’s ramp, but they won’t provide for Sonja. Not airfare, hotels, food, nothing. They won’t even let her down on the track when he’s competing.”
Brannigan’s accomplishments, though for now relegated to the Paralympics, have resonated with similarly-abled children and athletes across the globe. The T20 field for Dubai is stronger than ever before, due in no small part to Brannigan’s influence on his competition.
But his greatest impact is outside the loop of those tracks he frequents.
“We got mail from the mom of this kid David in Wisconsin,” Edie said. “The kid’s obsessed with Mikey’s videos, and he collects Mikey’s memorabilia, which we send to him. So they started letting him run when they go on walks. Then, she went to the town and started a handicap running club. She did all this work, but it’s a direct result of her stumbling upon Mikey one day.”