Saturday 21 January 2017

Living the impossible dream

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 15/01/2012 | 05:00

Do you feel sorry for yourself sometimes? Don't lie. If you do happen to be one of that stiff upper lip minority who never do, fair play to you and don't be too hard on the rest of us.

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At the moment this country is giving us plenty of reasons to look on the dark side of things. One thousand one hundred jobs went in one day last week, the economy is up the creek and we're governed by a gang of scoundrels whose main preoccupation seems to be ensuring that their buddies get paid top dollar for 'advising' this sorry administration. It's not surprising Ireland seems to be suffering a collective bout of depression.

So maybe it's a good time to hear the story of the kid from Croydon with the dad from Dublin and the mum from Monaghan. Kieran Behan was nine years old when he took up gymnastics but a year later an ominous lump appeared on one of his legs. It was a tumour. The good news was that it didn't turn out to be cancerous after it was removed. The bad news was that the post-operation tourniquet wasn't looked after properly. The leg had suffered nerve damage and the child was warned he might never walk again.

He walked again, got up out of his wheelchair and carried on with his gymnastics. At the age of 12, he was training when he hit his head off the horizontal bar. This time round the diagnosis was brain damage and damage to the vestibular canal of the inner ear, which controls balance. For eight weeks he lay with his head strapped to a hospital bed, suffering hellish blackouts and seizures. Once more his parents were told to prepare for the possibility that Kieran's walking days were over.

The kid started his teens learning all over again how to sit up and move his head properly, spending several months in a wheelchair the doctors expected might become his permanent residence. Eighteen months Kieran spent in rehab but he got out of the wheelchair, made it to crutches followed by a walking stick and then he was walking again. It was a full three years before he was back to his old self.

He's 15 and has just defied the doctors again. So what does Kieran Behan do next? He goes back to gymnastics. It's in some way the most remarkable moment of the whole story because he'd have been excused for playing it safe for the rest of his life. But he wanted to get back into the gym at the Tolworth club, just to the south of London in the Surrey suburbs. God knows what his feelings must have been the first time he went back on the horizontal bar. He did it all the same.

It was a minor miracle that the kid from Croydon was even competing but he was doing more than that. He was winning underage national titles in Britain and emerging as one of their most promising young gymnasts.

And then he declared for Ireland. Not even Joey Barton would question Kieran Behan's right to call himself Irish. He had to pay for that right because he didn't get a red cent of support from this country, even while he was flying the flag for us internationally. He flew that flag pretty well. But we'll get back to that later because you might have noticed a suspicious lack of bad luck in the last couple of paragraphs. It hadn't gone away, you know.

In 2008, he ruptured the cruciate ligament in his right knee. He recovered from that but as he was preparing for the 2010 European Championships incurred the same injury to his left knee. At this stage anyone else would perhaps have taken the hint. Not our man.

Behan used his lay-off to try and raise the money needed to compete at international level, selling sweets and washing cars to finance his trips in search of world ranking points. His father Phil, a builder, and mother Bernie, their son admits, "have put every spare penny they have into me." His coach Simon Gale revealed that, "It's been a struggle for him. Gymnastics Ireland hasn't been able to fund him really and last year alone he spent thousands competing in places like Japan, Germany, Slovenia, Croatia and the Czech Republic."

At times he didn't even know if he could afford the basic hand protection straps needed in the sport. Gale says that on occasion Behan had to vault over ticket barriers to save on rail fares as he made his way round Europe. It must have been the most aesthetically pleasing act of fare dodging ever seen.

Somehow this shoestring operation enabled him not just to compete with his opposition from traditionally powerful and lavishly funded countries, but to beat them. In December, he won the World Cup B floor exercise event in Ostrava, taking the scalp of world floor champion Eleftherios Kosmidis of Greece in the process.

That victory enabled him to take gold in the overall World Cup B series. However, with no Olympic place available for floor exercises alone, Behan would have to qualify in the overall event, a tall order given that, as he admitted himself, his knee injuries prevented him from competing at the very top level in the other disciplines.

Yet last week, Behan's 34th place in the final qualifying event in London earned him a place in this year's Olympics, making him only the second Irish gymnast ever to do so. He finished fourth in the floor exercises, confirming his status as a genuine world-class performer in that event.

The most impossible of impossible dreams had come true. The boy who'd spent those two months racked by blackouts and seizures, perhaps wondering if the sport he loved had crippled him for life, the

man who'd funded his Olympic hopes on a wing and a prayer, had come through. I'm not sure if anyone at the London games will have travelled a harder road.

The story of Kieran Behan makes the Rocky films look like dour documentary works of social realism. It shows that people are capable of almost anything if they put their minds to it. It shows that no situation is ever truly hopeless as long as you have breath in your body. It's the kind of story we need to hear right now. Because the best thing about this hero is that he's one of our own.

Gymnastics is largely invisible to the media and grossly underfunded by the government but it's one of our biggest Olympic sports in terms of participation. There are 91 clubs out there with over 12,000 members, great clubs like Douglas in Cork, Excel in Celbridge, Old Bawn in Tallaght and Renmore in Galway, where dedicated coaches have been working away out of the limelight for many years now. Their own Olympic dreams will burn a little brighter this week.

When he knew he'd qualified, Kieran Behan said, "I was just jumping around the room crying my eyes out. I was just so chuffed."

Not just you mate. Not just you.

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