Mikey Brannigan has never let his autism define him. Running has taken care of that. The 23-year old Northport native made his name with his legs, striding through life at a fast pace with an enthusiastic demeanor. He loves everything about running – doing it, training for it, watching it, talking about it.
And now, finally, he gets to do it again.
Brannigan will defend his gold medal in the T20 1,500 meters at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in September. Brannigan won the same race at the 2016 games in Rio, becoming the first American runner with autism to take the gold in that event.
The T20 classification features athletes with intellectual impairments.
Like all athletes who were looking toward 2020 as their next chance to shine on the world's biggest stage, Brannigan was disappointed when the Games were postponed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The goalposts, which he had been looking toward since he finished running in Rio, had been moved.
"I was sad that they moved it for another year," Brannigan said recently from Colorado Springs, where he is training for the next month. "I was in really good shape last year."
But it was more than the Paralympics for Brannigan. Suddenly, the thing he loved the most – racing – was gone. Brannigan was left with nothing imminent to prepare for, nothing to look forward to.
"It was hard for Mikey to really comprehend the scope of the coronavirus," said his mother, Edie Brannigan. "…For all of us, it was a shock. For Mikey, it was 100 times worse. Despite the autism, Mikey's a very social animal. So he didn’t really understand."
Edie Brannigan continued: "How could you explain what was going on? Even among ourselves, how could it be explained? Then, to explain it to Mikey was really difficult. He took it hard. I loaded him up with books and puzzles and games."
Last March, Brannigan relocated to Williamsville, a suburb of Buffalo, with his coach, Sonja Robinson, a Williamsville native. He was able to train there and resume a sense of normalcy, even with no races to run. While the original plan called for Brannigan to stay upstate for only a couple of months, he ended up staying until earlier this month, when his training relocated to Colorado Springs.
"He’s made a lot of growth and been able to handle really challenging situations," Robinson said. "Being in lockdown is not easy. Not being able to go places is not easy. I think he’s handled it as best as we possibly have hoped."
Brannigan qualified for the Tokyo Paralympics last month in Minneapolis, running the 1,500 in 4 minutes, 1.76 seconds. It was his first 1,500 in 19 months, Robinson said. He had done some 5ks during that time, but it wasn’t the same as a pure track race.
"I missed racing on the track," Mikey said. "I raced 5Ks, but I missed racing on the track more and the competition in the races."
As if the rust from over a year off the track wasn’t enough, Brannigan turned his ankle two days before the qualifiers.
"It was pretty swollen and even hard for him to walk on it," Robinson said. "He puts a lot of force into the ground and for him not to be able to get up on his toe was really hard for him because he couldn’t run normal. The fact that he was able to run 4:01 with the ankle the way it was was pretty spectacular. He really gutted it out."
Brannigan said his ankle is feeling much better.
Since winning the gold in 2016, Brannigan has grown three and a half inches, now standing at 6 foot, 1 inch. Robinson had to manage this growth as she guided Brannigan on the long road toward a Paralympics repeat. Most of that growing took place between 2017 and early 2020, she said.
"He’s getting used to this new body," Robinson said. "It takes a long time. But he’s coming along nicely. We cut back on his training while he was growing. It wasn’t nearly as much mileage and the intensity probably wasn’t there compared to other runners. But I feel like I kept him safe because of the growing pains and I think this year he’ll run well and he’s looking forward to the future to really putting all the pieces together."
The US Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) did not select Robinson to be part of their official traveling contingent, forcing her and the Brannigans to fund her trip themselves. They set up a GoFundMe to help with the cost and, on Wednesday night, eclipsed their $15,000 goal.
"It’s really incredible," Edie Brannigan said. "It’s a lifetime of a lot of rejection….I carry this feeling of somehow being a burden. Then, something like this happens and people come out of the woodwork to support you in any way that they can…Do you have any idea how much that means to us as a family? It feels so good. Like, we are cared about, we are not a burden. I don’t even have words. How do you say thank you for something like this?"
Robinson, who did receive a coach certification, will be allowed to be with Brannigan whenever he is not in the Olympic Village – including on the track. When in the Olympic Village, the mother of another autistic athlete was selected to supervise those who need it, Edie Brannigan said.
Still, Edie said she is unsure how much supervision her son will actually have inside the Olympic village and has received very little in the way of guidance, assurance, or even communication, from the USOPC on the issue.
"Behind the scenes, Mikey needs supervision," Edie Brannigan said. "No matter how good he looks or sounds, he makes decisions of a 6-to-11-year-old. Enough said."
"If he had the body of a 6-to-11-year-old, he would never be alone. What are we supposed to do?"
The fundraiser comes on the heels of Becca Meyers, a deaf and blind swimmer from Maryland who won three golds and a silver in Rio in 2016, quitting the US Paralympic team after the USOPC denied her request to bring her mother to serve as a personal care assistant.
"When I saw her stuff, it's exactly, almost word for word, our stuff," Edie said. "I didn't know that anybody else was going through the lack of support for these disabled athletes that we are. I didn't know. So, when I saw that I was like ‘oh my god’."
Since high school, Brannigan has been a bit of a national figure, especially in the autism community. His story captured the attention of NBC News, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN, with all producing features on Brannigan’s emergence as one of the best high school runners in the country, one who just happened to be autistic.
His profile only grew when he won the gold medal. As he travels the country, Brannigan speaks with families with autistic children, showing them the gold and extolling the virtues of his favorite activity.
Shortly after Rio, Edie Brannigan received a letter from a Wisconsin woman who had an autistic son. Her son hung pictures of his heroes on his wall and wanted one of Mikey.
"This little kid just wants to be like Mikey and he started running," Edie said.
Since then, Mikey has visited his Wisconsin fan, as well as others who want to live by his example.
"It’s inspirational that younger kids look up to me," he said. "I love it. It makes me happy. Kids like to see me do well and I like to see them do well…I feel like a special person, and they’re special, too."
Said Edie: "I've received lots of mail, emails, texts, even Facebook messages from people all over the world saying ‘thank you. I saw Mikey run, and my son has autism and I have hope today.’ The hope isn't that ‘my son is going to go win a gold medal’. The hope is that he can have a life beyond the limitations that have been set for him."
Brannigan has shattered those limitations twofold. Now, he’s looking for another gold medal.
The goals for Tokyo? Same as ever.
"Just win the gold medal, run my best race, and get the work down," he said.