Saturday 31 January 2015

The Olympic gymnast who somersaulted crippling odds

Kieran Behan has his eyes on 2016 glory, says Graham Clifford

It's almost exactly a year since Kieran Behan somersaulted into our consciousness for the first time.

The diminutive Londoner with his Irish looks and English accent became the first gymnast representing Ireland to qualify outright for an Olympic Games.

What's more he did so after being told twice that he'd never walk again.

After a procedure to remove a benign tumour went wrong when he was 10, Kieran was told he'd spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

He defied the odds and returned to the gym, but suffered a horrendous brain injury during training at the age of 12. Once again he was told he'd never walk.

A few days before he reached London 2012 I met Kieran in a gym in Tolworth, Surrey. At the time he was unknown in Ireland, it was the calm before the storm.

He was a few minutes late for our meeting, later it transpired that he'd run out of money and so he'd had to jump the train barrier.

Corner-cutting was a regular ploy of Kieran's – out of necessity rather than choice.

He had no sponsor and the only money he could find to put towards training and competition costs came via donations from his parents, cake sales and car washes.

So skint was Kieran that he would borrow hand supports needed in competition from teammates as he couldn't afford to buy extra ones for himself. A year on from that first rendezvous, Kieran pulls up outside the Tolworth gym in his spanking new Peugeot Speedfight moped, the days of train barrier jumping are well and truly behind the 23-year-old.

He's wearing a short-sleeved top, and on the inside of his lower right arm is a colourful London 2012 tattoo over which floats a shamrock.

"It's been an amazing year really since I first met you here. I don't know if I was prepared for it all really, for the hype, for the media coverage, even still it's mind-blowing," says Kieran, whose mother Bernie hails from Monaghan and father Phil from Dublin.

On the evening of Kieran's bid to qualify I got a call from his manager asking if I thought their boy had done the impossible. I was sitting in front of a computer screen trying to work out the ridiculously complicated scoring system of the International gymnastics federation.

Tentatively I remember telling them "You know something . . . I think he's made it!"

The young man who'd started the week as a virtually unknown gymnast finished it as the athlete everybody wanted to meet.

Every newspaper and radio station in the country wanted a piece of him and the story of his success against the odds spread to the media in far-flung places such as Australia, Thailand and India. Even Sports Illustrated dedicated two pages to his story.

"I think people could connect with my life. I mean everyone has difficult times and the fact that I had them and came through the other side to reach the Olympics seems to have inspired people."

Irish Independent

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