Autism fails to slow Nashville native, U.S. Paralympian

Tuesday, August 28, 2012 at 10:05pm
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Michael Murray

The lane order was a technicality.

Regardless of where he lined up for the 400-meter dash, Michael Murray always knew his destination.

“He always wanted to run in lane one,” Murray’s longtime coach Andrew Reynolds recalls. “If he started in lane eight, he would just cut in right away and knock everybody down.”

More than a decade later, Murray no longer runs out of place. Instead he races toward history.

For the first time since 2000, athletes with intellectual disabilities, such as Murray, will be able to compete in the Paralympics, which begin Wednesday in London.

“It is a dream,” said Murray, who will compete in the 1,500-meter run on Sept. 3. “It means a lot to me. I just want to get up on that podium.”

The 21-year-old Nashville native never has let a form of autism slow him down.

Last year, he became the first athlete with an intellectual disability to travel with the U.S. Paralympic Team to compete in the IPC World Championships, held in Christchurch, New Zealand. He since has competed in Italy and Mexico, where he won the gold in the 100-meter dash at the 2011 Parapan American Games.

“It is just phenomenal to see his growth from a kid to a grown man,” Reynolds said. “That’s the greatest thing about track and field. It really has helped him as far as his disability is concerned. Learning patience, learning discipline and structure, you have to do things a certain kind of way. It really has helped him tremendously. Because of track and field — that’s why Mike has a regular diploma instead of just a certificate of going to school for 12 years.”

Murray graduated from Pearl-Cohn in 2009 and worked as a custodian for Goodwill Industries. But as the Paralympics approached, he turned his focus to making the team. By his side the entire time has been Reynolds, his coach since he was 8 and his second cousin.

Reynolds also coaches the Nashville Illusions Track Club and heads up the men’s program at Pearl-Cohn. He has watched Murray grow as a runner — he no longer runs out of his lane — and has seen him persevere out of tragedy. Six years ago, his father, Mike Sr., was killed as he left a friend’s house.

“Initially, it was rough on Mike,” Reynolds said. “The one thing Mike had and the thing [his sister] Kaylor had was running. Running was their way of getting away from all the bad feelings they had.”

Murray won’t be alone in London. Making the trip will be his mother, Kathy, and his sister, a former all-state standout at Brentwood Academy who will be a freshman at Hampton University this fall. But when he steps to the starting line, his father will be on his mind.

“He means a lot to me,” Murray said. “He taught me it’s not how you start but it is how you finish, and I learned from that.”