Brandon Moran was born with spina bifida, the birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly.
It meant that Brandon was confined to a life in a wheelchair.
But that didn’t mean that Moran couldn’t become a standout athlete.
When Moran was in fifth grade, he read an article about the World Paralympics, the Olympics for people who are wheelchair bound. It was all the inspiration that the young Union City native needed.
“I was always amazed when I saw the chair that the athletes were in,” Moran said. “It was all so futuristic.”
When Moran was a freshman at Union City High School three years ago, he met another wheelchair-bound student. Jasmin Morales encouraged Moran to join a club, the North Jersey Navigators, coached by Jersey City native Jimmy Cuevas, that is strictly for wheelchair-bound athletes.
“She told me about the club,” Moran recalled. “It was always something that I was interested in doing. My parents were always looking for something for me to do. It’s not easy being wheelchair bound. You have to be both mentally and physically stable to do it. I always thought I would be able to handle it. I just had to push myself harder.”
When Moran first joined the club, he didn’t own a wheelchair that was meant for competition.
“But once I got a chair, I thought that maybe it was meant for me,” Moran said. “Maybe I could go faster than most people do in a wheelchair. I just had to learn and take it step by step.”
Carlos Sosa is the veteran track and field coach at Union City High School. Two years ago, when Moran, then a sophomore at Union City, approached Sosa and said he wanted to join the track team, Sosa didn’t know how to respond.
“Honestly, I had no clue,” Sosa said. “I never had a handicapped athlete before. I didn’t know how to coach him. I knew Brandon. I saw him in school. When he came out for the team, he said he wanted to one day compete in the [NJSIAA] Meet of Champions. But when he came to practice the first time, we didn’t have the proper equipment for him to train with.”
So the school was able to acquire a special treadmill for Moran to train indoors. Since Union City doesn’t have a running track on their athletic facility on the roof of the school, Moran and his Soaring Eagle teammates head to North Hudson Braddock Park twice a week to work out on a regular track.
“One of the things that was challenging to Brandon was his practice schedule,” Sosa said. “But he was determined.”
When a wheelchair-bound athlete competes in track, the wear and tear on their hands can be brutal.
“I used normal gloves at first and they hurt a little,” Moran said. “After a while, I started to use bigger gloves, then regular biking gloves. It was a little tough to get used to.”
Finally, Moran got personalized gloves that were actually molded to fit his hands perfectly.
“They’re a little more comfortable,” Moran said. “They’re easier to use. If you don’t know the proper technique, it can hurt.”
Sosa learned one thing about Moran in a hurry.
“He’s very competitive,” Sosa said. “He’s always working hard. But it’s always hard for him because he’s always racing against the clock. He doesn’t have anyone to compete with. There aren’t that many wheelchair athletes around.”
Moran is now a senior at Union City High School, so this was his last year to be able to compete and reach his goal of the Meet of Champions. He recently raced at the Hudson County Track Coaches Association championships at Secaucus High School, but he was alone on the track, receiving tons of applause and cheers from the people in attendance.
At that meet, Moran set personal records in the 800-meters with a time of 2:10.18 and the 1,600-meters in 4:54.70.
A week later, Moran set a new personal record in the 1,600-meters at the NJISAA North Jersey Section 1, Group 4 state sectional meet in Clifton, crossing the line in 4:45.98, breaking his old PR by nine seconds.
“I always had to beat my own record,” Moran said. “I didn’t have anyone to compete against. It was just me. But compared to where I was when I started, I’m three times as fast. I always knew I could push harder if I was with someone.”
But last week, at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions at Northern Burlington County Regional High School in Columbus, and with some competition there, it was Moran’s chance to put on a show.
Moran won an amazing total of seven gold medals at the Meet of Champions that day on June 8. He took home the top prize in the 100-meters, the 400-meters, the 800-meters and the 1,600 meters. They weren’t the best times Moran ever posted, but they were enough to win the gold in each event.
Moran also set a new state record in the shot put, throwing it 23 feet, ½ inches. He also set a new state record in the discus (79 feet, six inches). And Moran capped his incredible day by winning the javelin with a throw of 48 feet, 10 inches). Seven gold medals? That’s like Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps.
“I was really happy, because in the past, I was only able to get bronze,” Moran said.
“Coming in, we didn’t know much about the competition,” Sosa said. “We were just focused on him trying to get better. It was amazing to see him in the field events. He was so determined. His throwing has improved so much since last year.”
His performance has already enabled Moran to earn USA Paralympics All-American.
“I’m so very proud of him,” Sosa said. “He’s come a long way. He has a tremendous support system, from his family, the school, the community. They all understand. The school goes above and beyond accommodating his needs. They see Brandon as an athlete. I think we’ve all been strong advocates for him.”
Moran was also recently honored at the NJSIAA Scholar/Athlete Luncheon as Union City’s top student/athlete. He’s carrying a 4.3 grade point average. He’s headed to Rutgers University in the fall to study computer science.
“Academics have always been my top priority,” Moran said.
Needless to say, Moran is an inspiration to all who have disabilities.
“I feel like I’ve been a bit of a role model for others who have a disability,” Moran said. “I would be willing to talk to others about it. When I leave here [Union City High], I wanted to leave my mark. I didn’t want to be just another student in a wheelchair. I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done.”
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com (this week, Jim focuses on the passing of legendary football coach and his love of Man of LaMancha) and you can follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar.