“It was rewarding but also really emotional because you work so hard to try to make someone else’s dream come true. It’s like being a parent. In my mind, every single coach that has an athlete there deserves a medal, whether their athlete medals or not, because of the time and the effort and the energy."
For US track coach Sonja Robinson, who trains three-time world champion Mikey Brannigan, the moment the middle-distance star presented her with her London 2017 medals brought tears to her eyes.
More than 600 gold, silver and bronze medals were handed out to Para athletes at this summer’s World Para Athletics Championships in London, Great Britain – but for the first time ever, coaches of competitors who made it on to the podium also received their own award.
“It was rewarding but also really emotional because you work so hard to try to make someone else’s dream come true. It’s like being a parent,” explains Robinson, who has coached Brannigan for the last two years.
“In my mind, every single coach that has an athlete there deserves a medal, whether their athlete medals or not, because of the time and the effort and the energy.
“So many people have helped me with Mikey. So even though I was the one that got the medal, I feel like it was a medal for all of us.”
Brannigan has autism and competes in the T20 class for intellectually impaired athletes. Communicating and engaging with others doesn’t come easily to the 20-year-old Paralympic and world champion – a fact not lost on Robinson, who was overwhelmed by his gesture.
“It wasn’t in private, there were other people around – it wasn’t just me and him. For him to do that was very special. A lot of other coaches – their athletes hug them, or they joke around together. But Mikey is different and for him to initiate that – that shows that he is maturing emotionally.”
In fact, Robinson found that moment with Brannigan more emotional than watching her charge – who won gold in the 800m and 1,500m T20 as well as silver in the 5,000m T20 in London – race around the track.
“For sure,” admitted Robinson. “Because of the autism, Mikey doesn’t express himself the way a lot of other people do.
“So for him to make an emotional connection to me was a breakthrough for him. For him to show that appreciation all by himself was a sign of maturity for him.
“When he’ s racing, it’s all about business. Yes, I’m extremely nervous, because I’m just hoping that he can stay in control and execute and stay mentally and emotionally engaged the entire race. So I tend not to get emotionally into it, as it’s kind of clinical at that point.”
Robinson describes their bond as “definitely more than coach”, explaining:
“I’m kind of like a coach, slash aunt, slash cook, slash chauffeur. I kind of do it all for him because he is so talented. Mikey requires a lot of hands-on, he requires people to be repetitive with a lot of things. It’s very easy for him to get excited and not do what he’s supposed to do.”
Brannigan’s silver medal in the 5,000m was the result that made his coach most proud.
“I was obviously proud when Mikey won the 1,500m – and a little bit of relief too, we’d been talking all year about defending the title. The 800m I knew the runner from Spain (Deliber Rodriguez Ramirez) was going to be coming, and for Mikey to be able to execute the race plan perfectly without having to run too fast, he did that.
“But really the race I’m most proud of was the 5,000m - even though he came in second. When you watch the race he emotionally and mentally stayed engaged the entire race. He never gave up; even when he was down – he kept pushing until he crossed the finish line.”
Robinson says that because of Brannigan’s autism he rarely reveals what his achievements – and his coach – mean to him. That made their shared moment outside the US team tent at the London 2017 warm-up track all the more special.
“I think back to two years ago when I started working with him when I thought ‘Oh my goodness, there is just so much to do.’ Then I think of how far he has come. I know he’ll go further too.”