Not long after crossing the finish line to win his 1,500 meters on Tuesday, McCloskey put his forehead up to Clave’s and repeated, “I told you this would happen. Would I ever lie to you?”
McCloskey needed a big push over the final 200 meters, a move called “quarter paces.” He ran a steady pace for the first three laps, then had extra energy to surge past Nolan Wendt of Arizona on the outside.
That surge made waves all over social media on Tuesday. The video was tweeted out by ESPN, and amassed more than 2,000 “likes” in the first 12 hours.
Wendt had gone right to the front and led the entire race, until the last few steps. McCloskey finished in 5:09.13, 17 seconds faster than his previous best from Monday’s preliminary heat – and 26 seconds quicker than he’d run before the USA Games.
McCloskey’s first words after winning were, “Mom, I did it! I did it!”
“I was going to make things happen,” said McCloskey, 17, who got a chorus of “happy birthday” from other passengers on his flight to the USA Games on Saturday.
That’s the motto of West Milford Special Olympics, printed in huge gold letters on the back of the black team T-shirt. McCloskey has trained with the team since he was 8 years old, participating in basketball, bowling and track.
A sophomore at West Milford High School, McCloskey is part of the varsity bowling team. He also trained with the cross country and outdoor track teams.
For three weeks leading up to the USA Games, McCloskey went from West Milford High School track practice to Special Olympics practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays – often accompanied at both by senior Chase Appell and junior Wyatt Space, West Milford Unified partners. On Sundays, Gina McCloskey drove her son and Destiny Gerety of Hewitt to two-hour Team New Jersey practices in Point Pleasant.
“I used to shake my head when I’d see him race. Why are we torturing ourselves?” said Gina McCloskey, a second-grade teacher in Cliffside Park who volunteered for Special Olympics as a child.
“He said, ‘I’m going to do it, Mom.’ There’s one person who says he’s going to do something, he’ll find a way to get it done. He’s always been like that.”
Making things happen
McCloskey was diagnosed with autism at 18 months, and was nonverbal until age 5½. He was in a self-contained classroom until seventh grade, when he came back into the West Milford School District at Macopin Middle School.
Gina McCloskey got her son involved with therapeutic horseback riding and Challenger baseball. That’s where he met Clave, and joined Special Olympics. Soon afterward, he developed what Clave called “the Michael Kick.”
That’s what she saw as McCloskey headed to the finish line in Orlando on Tuesday.
“I was confident from the get-go,” he said. “I knew this was a big event. But I was so confident in what I was doing. … I haven’t made varsity or anything, but that race right there might be the best moment of my entire life.”
Michael McCloskey was diagnosed with epilepsy at 15. While running at Lake Waywayanda with the West Milford rec cross country team, McCloskey had a seizure.
Yet Michael joined the high school track team in the spring of his freshman year, and cross country as a sophomore. He will compete in the Special Olympics USA Games mini-javelin and the Team New Jersey 4-x-400 on Friday.
Michael’s goal is “to keep on getting gold medals.”
“I can’t let the kid stop living just because he’s got another diagnosis,” Gina McCloskey said.
Said Clave, “It’s important for him to be on the Special Olympics team. Sometimes there can be a stigma attached, but he has to remember there is no stigma. He’s competing with people, neurotypical or not. If you’re doing your best and being your best self with people, it doesn’t matter. It’s nice to see when a kid can find their niche.”
Jane Havsy is a storyteller for the Daily Record and DailyRecord.com, part of the USA TODAY Network. For full access to live scores, breaking news and analysis, subscribe today.
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