Light brown freckles pepper Michael Brannigan’s face, camouflaging scars from multiple stitches. He often ran into walls as a child.
Brannigan’s wide smile draws attention from his emerald green eyes. He smiles often but not when he runs. And his furrowed brows illustrate a look of fierce concentration, evidencing his competitive nature.
This is the look of a champion. He wore it well during the 2-mile event at the New Balance Nationals in Greensboro, N.C., in June, when he won with a time of 8:53.59.
Brannigan, an incoming senior at Northport (N.Y.) High, made history that day alongside twin teammates Tim and Jack McGowan, who placed third and fourth respectively. It was the first time three prep runners from the same school ran sub-nine minutes for 2 miles in the same race.
The win was just one of many for Brannigan. Teammates see him as a 6-foot, 150-pound machine. They don’t see him as a guy who has autism.
“He’s one of us,” Tim McGowan said.
Edie Brannigan noticed her son Michael’s developmental milestones were well behind those of his older brother Patrick. Michael never crawled, but he started to run at 10 months old.
Soon enough, he started to climb — out of his bedroom window, onto the refrigerator and even up a 6-foot chain fence.
Edie described Michael as hyperactive, impulsive and obsessive as a child. She slept on the floor in front of his bedroom door for a year when he was 3 years old.
“He was an escape artist,” she said. “We didn’t know what he’d be capable of.”
A special education occupational therapist and a speech therapist evaluated Michael when he was 13 months old. He was officially diagnosed with autism at age 2.
Autism — recognized as a developmental disorder on a spectrum, characterized by difficulties in social interaction, repetitive behaviors, and verbal and nonverbal communication — has yet to stop Michael from continuing to develop into one of the country’s top prep distance runners.
He didn’t make eye contact and was mostly nonverbal until he was 5. He typically pointed to what he wanted and held toys, like Thomas the Tank Engine, up to his nose and moved around his eyes. Edie often walked into a room in the house and found toys, pencils and even chairs lined up in rows.
Edie and Michael’s father, Kevin Brannigan, feared for their son’s future — they thought he would end up in a group home.
“The scariest thing as a parent is to think that your child might not be able to take care of himself,” Edie said.
Michael attended the Developmental Disabilities Institute in Huntington, N.Y., daily from when he was diagnosed until he was 5. It took six months of him working with a therapist to learn how to walk beside his mother instead of running in front of her.
When he played football, soccer and lacrosse growing up, he didn’t understand strategy and often scored for the opposing team. When he was 8 ½ running re-entered the picture — except this time he was encouraged to do it.
Kevin brought Michael, when he was 8 ½, to the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program on Long Island, N.Y. The nonprofit trains mentally and physically challenged individuals.
The club’s founder and coach Steve Cuomo invited him to do a 4-mile tempo run on the track. Michael immediately bolted to the front of the pack and ran stride for stride alongside seasoned members in their early 20s. Cuomo was impressed that he didn’t seem intimidated by the intensity of the workout.
And this was just the start.
Three years later, when Michael was 12, Edie signed him up for the Marine Corps Marathon 10-K. He maintained a 6:13-per-kilometer pace, and finished 22nd out of more than 5,000 runners with a time of 38:36.
“It was the most beautiful race,” Edie said. “It was the beginning of understanding that running would take him somewhere really good.”
That included being invited by Northport High cross country coach Jason Strom to run on the varsity team when he was in eighth grade. Tim McGowan, a freshman at the time, often trained alongside him. He recalled that their first few runs together were mostly in silence. But four runs in, Michael opened up — McGowan asked one question, and Michael talked for 30 minutes.
That year, he was one of the fastest runners on the team. And his natural ability and passion for the sport were evident during practices and races.
“He’d do anything to make himself better,” McGowan said. “No matter the workout or how long the run, if he knew it would make him better, he’d do it and then some. He is the most dedicated kid I’ve ever met.”
Michael runs up to 60 miles a week. He enjoys running because he likes working to accomplish goals.
And “I just want to win,” he said.
Last fall as a junior, he placed second at the state championship meet. Two weeks later, he won the Nike Cross Nationals New York regional meet with a time of 15:29, two seconds shy of the course record but fast enough to qualify for nationals in Portland, Ore.
Edie said he makes nothing of his successes.
“He doesn’t wallow in victories,” she said. “When he’s done with one race, he’s on to the next.”
Cuomo still coaches Michael during the summers. While he recognizes that he has come a long way, he knows he still has a lot to learn about running techniques and racing strategy, and Michael still gets anxious easily.
Cuomo is excited and confident about Michalel’s running career — this fall season and in the future.
“I don’t know how good he could be,” Cuomo said. “He’s blazing trails that we never thought of for people with autism.”
Edie has recognized an encouraging change in Michael since he started running — he cares more about school and getting good grades. According to Edie, he taught himself algebra through an online course during the summer before his freshman year at Northport High. He wanted to avoid having to take special education so he could be with his peers.
Michael takes regular classes with modifications. He’s permitted extra time for tests. Although he had a B-average after his sophomore year, Edie said his GPA dropped because he struggled with classes that weren’t numbers-oriented. Academics only create a bigger headache for his recruiting process, she said.
Edie acknowledged that Michaels’s upcoming senior season will be telling. He wants to run for a Division 1 program, but the NCAA’s academic requirements present a challenge. Due to his learning disability, his grades and test scores don’t quite make the cut. Edie said he requires a lot of tutoring.
“I’m not sure how, but we’re going to find a way to petition the NCAA,” Edie said.
“Here’s a kid who has talent, dedication and drive. He’s earned the right to run against the best college runners in the country.
“Why can’t he have the opportunity?”