Mike McDonald steps up to the starting line for a 3,200-meter (two-mile) race at Waterford High School. His body leans forward, anticipating the starting gun.

The explosion comes, and he takes off.

Mikey, as he is known to his family and friends, looks no different than his competition when running on the track. No one knows that, at six years old, the freshman at Saratoga Central Catholic High School was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy (CP), a neurological disorder that impairs motor function and movement.  

That doesn’t stop Mikey. While not the fastest, he is one of the most determined runners on Saratoga Central Catholic’s cross-country and track teams.

“He probably works hardest out of everyone on the team,” said Brian Halligan, the head distance coach for Spa Catholic’s track team and assistant coach for cross-country.

Mr. Halligan says Mikey’s maturity is on “a whole other level” for his age.

Mikey’s hard work doesn’t go unnoticed. With less than one season of track and field under his belt, he’s been nicknamed “The PR (Personal Record) Machine” because of how quickly he’s improving.

Mikey runs two events for his track team: the 1,600-meter (one-mile) and the 3,200-meter (two-mile). At his first track meet, Mikey ran the 1,600 in justover seven minutes. At his next race, he was 13 seconds faster. The race after that, he was five seconds faster.

His goal is to run a mile in 6:30 by the end of the season.

“It’s not about the person at the front of the race; it’s about the individual accomplishment,” said Mr. Halligan.

“I can’t get held back by CP,” Mikey told The Evangelist. “When I’m doing physical activity, I try to forget about the CP. It helps clear my mind.”

Mikey’s mother, Megan, said her son was born prematurely by around six weeks. He was completely healthy, but she noticed over time that he had coordination issues. Still, nothing else about Mikey was affected by CP except for his movement.

“He’s super smart, an honor roll student. He just physically can’t make his body move the way he plans it,” she explained.

When he was younger, that became frustrating to Mikey as he wanted to get involved in hand-eye or foot-eye coordination sports, like baseball.
One day, Mikey asked to join his mother at her gym. He started running on the treadmill and track and found that he really enjoyed it.

“Every step you take is one toward completing the goal,” Mikey explained. “With each step, you’ll get there, and it’s at your own pace.”

When he was 10, Mikey started running in 5K races around Ballston Spa. At first, Mrs. McDonald was worried about how Mikey would fare, but Mikey finished his first race with a time of 33 minutes.

“We were all like, ‘Wow!’” Mrs. McDonald said.

In seventh grade, Mikey began running cross-country for Spa Catholic High as part of the modified team, which allows middle-school students to practice as part of the high-school team.

While CP affects his muscles, Mikey noted that his case is very mild. Still, not everything is easy. Mr. Halligan said Mikey used to struggle with dynamics, a set of warm-ups like high-knees done before practice. One exercise in particular, called the karaoke, was especially hard.

One day, Mr. Halligan pulled Mikey aside and said, “Your goal is going to be able to do the karaoke.” Mikey committed to practicing it. Now, he can do the exercise with ease.

“That’s how you learn; that’s how you progress as an athlete,” said his coach.

Outside of running, Mikey is a member of the National Junior Honor Society and attends Mass at the St. Peter’s parish in Saratoga.

He says that running has helped to strengthen his faith: “Whenever I run, it’s my way of thanking God and being with God. It’s my way of thanking Him for helping with my CP.”

Setting new personal records is a goal for the freshman.

“I’m more focused on breaking my own records than if CP is going to hold me back,” Mikey said.