Ottawa’s own ‘first fastest runner’
Tommy Des Brisay isn’t letting autism get in the way of athletic accomplishments
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
The hand-drawn stick figures stencilled on the white and black T-shirt are so revealing. In an instant, you’re introduced to the happy, achieving side of Tommy Des Brisay, a charming yet complex character trapped by autism, but temporarily set free by his athleticism.
The nine drawings reflect the interests of the handsome 21-year-old, a longtime social media addict and lover of all things Disney, especially the movies, which have helped him with speech development and his interactive skills.
The rudimentary creations on Tommy’s T-shirt show him running, paddling, skiing, biking, hugging his third guide dog, Adel, riding, singing, dancing and cheering. Anchored on the bottom of the shirt is his website address: autismmeansfriendship.com.
Three years ago, Tommy asked his mother, MaryAnn Given: “What is autism?” He was curious, having heard the word used so much in conversation. She deflected the question and asked for his definition. He thought and said: “Autism is friendship.” In his case, he makes a good case for that definition.
Technically, autism is a complex disorder of brain development, affecting communication skills and interaction with others. As a result, Tommy has difficulty speaking and understanding, recognizing faces and alerting people about injuries. He can be unpredictable, frustrated, anxious and needs one-on-one attention all the time. However, judging by Tommy’s more than 1,000 Facebook friends, Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club teammates who embrace him as one of them on and off the track, and thousands of people he has run with in road races, there’s a lot to be said for autism means friendship.
No wonder stick-figure Tommy is smiling and happy in every one of the characters he drew for his T-shirt, especially the first one.
It shows him running. For someone who needs constant attention, has been known to require long, unscheduled marathon walks late at night and calls himself the First Fastest Runner in the World, can he ever run quickly and successfully.
During six years on the Ottawa road-racing scene, Des Brisay has been a regular medallist. In the past three years, he has developed into an overall race champion not once, but seven times. He’s also a national champion in paddling and a world champion in dragon boat racing.
Ever since his introduction to running on a trail in Kanata at age 14 with his father, Peter, a national cross-country ski team member in the 1980s, the then 190-pound Tommy has dedicated himself to training and running, making it part of his obsessive compulsive disorder routine.
When the start gun sounds to begin a race, he goes and goes and goes. Noted for his square-shouldered and arm pumping running style, he follows a fast, consistent and never-tiring pace. There’s a happy look on his face as he conquers each kilometre. At the end, he’s looks as refreshed as when he started. What he doesn’t fully understand is strategy: when to increase speed, how long to stay with other runners or to sprint.
“He’s running blind, but he’s not blind,” Peter Des Brisay says about Tommy’s one-dimensional approach. Over time, Tommy has become a more complete runner, just as his communication skills have significantly improved. Three years ago, he was unable to answer a reporter’s questions, but now he can express himself during a more lucid interview. Tommy was diagnosed with autism at 2½ years of age and was non-verbal until seven, but he could read and type words before he could speak.
During Ottawa-area road races, he has been known to giggle as he passes tiring racers, not out of disrespect for them, but rather reflecting his own inner happiness. As he methodically motors along, he’ll tell his bicycle-riding father, who serves as his guide, that he’s creating Disney-type stories in his mind.
That’s natural. At home, he has dictated several hundred stories to his mother, written many and had them secured in numerous binders. Most, if not all, have a Disney character theme. Tommy fell in love with Disney and animation ever since his family’s first visit to Orlando, Florida, in 2009.
Tommy, who graduated from the Ottawa Technical Secondary School autism program in 2012 and now is observing and taking notes in a University of Ottawa physical geography class, plans to finish a productive road racing season by running the Disney Wine and Dine Half Marathon on Nov. 9, but there could be a problem. His father hasn’t been cleared to ride the course and serve as his guide. The search for a fast guide runner to shadow Tommy hasn’t been successful. Tommy set a personal-best half-marathon time of one hour 14 minutes 58.9 seconds on Sept. 22, when he placed fifth in the Canada Army Run. He also finished fifth in the 2010 Army Run in 1:18:04.9. In both cases, he won his age category, adding to an extensive collection of medals, ribbons and plaques.
On Thanksgiving Monday, Tommy won the Chelsea Challenge 10-kilometre race in 34:40. It was his third overall road-race victory of the season, the others being the Day Before Mother’s Day Half Marathon five-kilometre test and the Wakefield Covered Bridge Run 10-kilometre race. So why has Tommy been able to score at least seven career first-place finishes, three seconds, six thirds and three fourthor fifth-place results since Canada Day 2008? “Because I am energetic,” states Tommy, who this season also was second in the Glen Tay Block Race at Perth in 53:11 for 15 kilometres, and third in the Xerox 10-kilometre race through the Arboretum in 35:22.2. “I don’t seem to get tired. I’m fast and I’m getting faster. I enjoy all the training and I want to be the first fastest runner in the world. I give 1-0-0 (100 per cent).”
While Peter has served as Tommy’s competitive race guide, his mother has chronicled his active life, producing hundreds of You-Tube videos and writing a blog on his website. Tommy’s You Tube channel, which is youtube.com/user/lookyus, surpassed one million views in July. “Tommy is inspiring and breaking peoples’ misconceptions about what (autistic) people can and can’t do,” she says. “He works hard to be an athlete.”
“What’s perfect for him is anything athletic,” Peter says.
Tommy tried to qualify for the 2012 Paralympics in London in the T20 (intellectual disability) class, but he was unable to meet the fast qualifying time criteria for his category’s only race, the 1,500 metres. On the heels of winning the 1,500-metre T20 gold medal in this year’s Canadian track and field championships at Moncton, he hopes to represent Canada in the 2016 Paralympics at Rio de Janeiro.
Even if he can’t make the grade on the track, maybe he’ll reach the Games on the water, with canoe/kayak making its Paralympic debut at Rio in 2016. Tommy, who competes for the Rideau Canoe Club, won the men’s T20 open 200-metre kayak solo race gold medal in the 2011 and 2012 Canadian canoe and kayak championships and was second this season. Running and paddling are only two of his activities, though. He’s involved in therapeutic riding, rock climbing, swimming, tandem-bike cycling, cooking and cross-country skiing, even qualifying for the Ontario high school championships in that sport three times. “He’s driven by his own agenda,” Given says. “He loved to climb and he ran full tilt. He was born to be arunner.”
Martin Cleary’s High Achievers column appears bi-weekly on Wednesdays. If you know an athlete, coach, team or builder you consider a high achiever, contact Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.