I’m not a sports fan, but the last page of Sports Illustrated was my favorite reading material in Keith’s cold bachelor bathroom. Rick Reilly told the most incredible stories in his column “Life of Reilly,” engaging me with unique people and perspectives from the sporting world. At the end of that short page, I always wanted more.
This summer’s Olympics brought no shortage of stories like those – stories our collective consciousness will remember forever, from the naughty (we won’t mention him) to the nice (like Simone Biles, Simone Manuel, Usain Bolt). Though I didn’t watch a single Olympics event, I enjoyed reading about them after the fact. (I know, so un-American.) You won’t be surprised to know my favorite story actually came from the Paralympics, but you might be surprised to know why.
Mikey Brannigan was diagnosed with autism at 18 months old. His mother reports Mikey “went from crawling to running.” His parents decided to channel the energy by enrolling him in a running club for children with special needs. He eventually became one of the nation’s top 10 teenage runners; over 200 colleges contacted him. This summer he took Paralympic gold in the 1500 meters event, mere weeks after he became the first person with a T20 Paralympic classification to break a 4:00 mile. By anyone’s standards, Mikey is an elite athlete, the best of the best. He says he hopes to participate in the Olympic games next time.
This is a feel good story, right? Young man overcomes odds and all of that. Well, maybe. Maybe not. Do you want to know why I love it?
Because he’s not like Henry. Not like Temple Grandin or Stephen Wiltshire. Not like Sheldon Cooper or Max Braverman. As far as we know, he doesn’t love trains or Legos. He doesn’t claim to be an avid gamer. He’s neither a genius nor a savant. He doesn’t travel the world speaking to crowds about his disability or his work. He doesn’t write books.
Someone once asked Keith’s brother, “How do you think Keith feels about the fact Henry won’t be an athlete?” His brother replied, “How do you know he won’t?”
Admittedly, time has revealed sports to be low on Henry’s list of fun, but what I love about my brother-in-law’s answer is that he recognized autism is more than one set of interests, abilities, or disabilities. People with autism are as varied as you and me.
Mikey is a gift because he’s Mikey, not because he has autism. He is a human using his talent and skill to add beauty to the world, and it is breathtaking to behold.
So, what’s the real takeaway of this story? Is it that a young man with a low IQ and social disabilities became a star athlete? Is it that his parents never gave up on him? That his coaches believed in him? Maybe it’s closer to what Stella Young said: “Disability doesn’t make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does.”
I may not enjoy sports, but I love stories. I especially love stories revealing the vast creativity of our Maker, like the story of a little boy who once ran into walls becoming a man who “moves his body like classical music.“