“He can be very single minded. Nobody ever had to tell Mikey to run a race. He was that kid in the playground that would try to beat himself – nobody had to teach him how to compete.”
When the bell rang to indicate one lap to go in the Paralympic final of the men’s 1,500m T20 at Rio 2016, Michael Brannigan stepped up a gear.
He made it look easy; as the field stretched out behind him and the sprint home began in earnest, the young American never once looked back.
He didn’t need to – the New Yorker, known as Mikey, was in complete control; his competitors behind couldn’t keep up. The battle was on for silver and bronze, but there was no doubt about the winner.
“I did what I had to do to represent Team USA and leave it all on the track in Rio,” Brannigan said afterwards - but it was clear then that the American had plenty more to give. As his rivals lay on the ground catching their breath, Brannigan walked round, making sure he shook hands with everyone he could.
Diagnosed with autism when he was three-years-old, Brannigan began running when he was just eight. His coach Sonja Robinson, who has worked with Brannigan for the last two years, is well aware how driven he is.
“He can be very single minded. Nobody ever had to tell Mikey to run a race. He was that kid in the playground that would try to beat himself – nobody had to teach him how to compete,” explained Robinson, who sat with Brannigan as he spoke with the IPC, and helped him as he talked about his racing.
“He’s competing against the other competitors but he’s really mindful that he’s really competing against himself. He’s trying to be a better runner today than he was yesterday.
“As much as it takes people’s breath away, he works really hard and it’s been a steady climb for him since he was a little kid. He’s had those stepping stones to mark his progress every single year and it’s just been since he’s been in Para sport that the world has taken notice.”
Now Brannigan, who won his first major international title when he clinched world 1,500m T20 gold two years ago, seems to be making headlines on a regular basis.
Last August he broke the four-minute mile for the first time, then in early 2017 he clocked 3:45.50 over 1,500m to set a new T20 world record en route to finishing seventh in the prestigious Invitational Men’s Mile race at the Millrose Games in New York. The 5,000m T20 world record followed soon after.
The 20-year-old will undoubtedly be the man to beat at this month’s World Para Athletics Championships, where he takes on the 800m, 1,500m and 5,000m T20.
“I’m looking forward to competing at the stadium, the energy and the crowds. When I hear the noise it helps me to run fast,” said Brannigan, who acknowledges the fact he is now the marked man.
“I’m confident, but I’m more respectful for my competitors,” he added.
Robinson is well aware of the effects Brannigan’s autism has on his athletics.
“Because of Mikey’s autism it takes him longer to learn different skills, drills, and tactics needed to excel in the sport. It’s his perseverance, determination and sheer stubbornness that has brought him this far. He wants to run with the best but he's also a student of the sport and knows that it is a long process to become the best. He always says one step at a time.
“I don't know if it is the autism that makes him this way but he can move on from disappointment – for example not running a time he would want to run, or not placing as high as he thinks he should, quicker than any athlete that I've been around. He literally goes back to practice, wanting to learn from a mistake or subpar performance and 'fix' it.
“I don't think that's a quality that is synonymous with people with autism - I think you find that quality in people that want to be great at something- that want to be the best.”
As for Brannigan, his focus, determination and talent are clear. But what is it he loves about running?
“Just having fun, working hard, competing and improving my times,” he replied. It is certainly a winning combination for him.