How Running Changed Mikey Brannigan’s Life With Autism

By Doug Williams | April 01, 2016, 4:32 p.m. (ET)
Brannigan's 2015 season included a silver at world championships, a national championship and a 2015 Parapan American Games gold (above).

When Mikey Brannigan was a little boy, he was in constant motion.

His mother, Edie, recalls how he was constantly spinning or running “all over the place,” climbing fences and occasionally running away. She says sometimes he was “out of control.”

Mikey is autistic. He had trouble focusing his energy in a positive direction.

But then, in the fourth grade, he discovered running with a local track club near his home in Northport, New York. The day he began running was the day a door opened up to a whole new world.

Now, on World Autism Day 2016, Brannigan, 19, is a top Paralympic runner in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters and is a hopeful for the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this September.

His victory in the 1,500 (T20 classification) at the 2015 IPC Track and Field World Championships in Doha, Qatar was the pinnacle of a marvelous 2015 season that also included a silver medal in the 5,000 in Doha, a national championship in the 1,500 and a victory in the 1,500 at the Parapan American Games.

“I accomplished a lot, goals and accomplishments,” said Mikey, reflecting on 2015. “I keep reaching for the stars and have support from my friends and family, everywhere and every day in my life.”

The little boy who couldn’t control himself went on to be one of the nation’s top high school runners. He graduated from high school and was voted king of his senior prom. He’s been featured in Sports Illustrated and on an ESPN documentary. He’s now a member of the New York Athletic Club, touring the nation to run in top meets against the world’s best runners.

“It’s Mikey’s thing,” Edie says of running. “I believe everyone on the planet has their thing and, especially in my experience, autistic people all have a tremendous gift. It’s a matter of finding that gift and nurturing it.”

Running not only is his gift, but the tool that helped him channel his energy and focus.

Edie Branigan said in the fourth grade, Mikey was the kid sitting off to the side of the class, coloring with an aide. By the sixth grade, he was sitting with his classmates, doing the same academic work as his peers. The only ingredient missing to make that happen was to take up running in a structured program.

“It changed his life,” she said. “I saw it happen.”

Mikey loves to train hard and compete. He loves to study the sport and has an encyclopedic knowledge of great runners and their accomplishments. And when he’s on the track, he’s in his element.

Running, Edie said, is pleasurable for her son for reasons beyond winning or setting a personal best.

“Even the endorphin thing, what any typical person gets from running,” she said. “I think that Mikey gets like 100 fold. And it clearly helps him to focus and absorb information.”

“Strong Kick” For a Title

Mikey Brannigan had success across the board in 2015, his senior year at Northport High on Long Island.

Brannigan, the country’s No. 1-ranked prep runner in the 3,200 meters, won the event at the prestigious Glenn D. Loucks Memorial Games in 8 minutes, 42.92 seconds, setting a meet and New York state record. He took third in the Adidas Dream Mile in 4:03.18 and was second in the high school boys’ mile at the Prefontaine Classic, running 4:05.78.

In June at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, he ran 3:48.85 to set a 1,500 T20 world record. At the Parapan American Games in Toronto in August, he outdueled Luis Arturo Paiva of Venzuela to win the 1,500 in 4:04.32.

In October, Brannigan ran 3:56.5 to win the 1,500 at the world championships in Doha, edging 2012 Paralympic champion Peyman Nasiri Bazanjani of Iran by 0.03 seconds.

A strong finish in the 1,500 secured his world title in Doha.

“I had a strong kick,” he said. “I learned … to go through the line, always through the line and don’t stop.”

Recently, Brannigan spent two weeks training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. He said he enjoyed being at the same facility with all the other Paralympic and Olympic athletes.

It was just one more adventure that running has given him.

“Mikey is doing something that he loves, and it’s opened opportunities to him to meet interesting people and to travel around the world and have those experiences,” his mother said. “I mean, I never went to California in my lifetime until I went to visit him in Chula Vista at the Olympic training facility. So Mikey’s taken us all for a ride, you know?”

Edie Brannigan said the family’s journey with Mikey’s autism has been long and difficult. She admits she was angry when Mikey was young because of the handicap her son had been given. But as time elapsed and Mikey graduated high school and excelled as a runner that changed. Now she sees his autism as a gift.

“Everything is exactly the way it’s meant to be,” she said. “That Mikey is incredible because he has gone through a lot with this disability and he has come out the other side with grace and dignity. He’s a perfect example to me. He inspires me. He never quit.”

Paralympics to Olympics?

Mikey had hoped to go to a Division I school to run track after high school, and he was contacted by more than 200 colleges. But his autism inhibits his ability to succeed in standardized academic testing, so he’s now training full time with the New York Athletic Club and thriving under the coaching and atmosphere of the club.

To keep working hard and improving is fun for him.

“I want to keep progressing,” he said. “I’m always a good worker and listener.”

At just 19, and experiencing elite coaching for the first time in his career, Mikey Brannigan is venturing into higher realms, his mother said.

“My experience with Mikey, anything could happen,” she said. “I just want to tell people like, ‘Yo, stay tuned.’ He has shocked us all so many times, we’re unshockable now. Anything could happen. He could make that leap to the Olympics and win. That’s my prediction.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.