Monday 17 December 2018

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 next day it was confirmed that he had. Then all hell broke loose.

"It was all just a blur. I was buzzing and then was told to get on a flight for Dublin because I was going to be on that night's Late Late Show. I walked in and the other main guest was Keith Duffy, it was mental," recalls Kieran.

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."

The success also brought some much-needed financial assistance. The Olympic Council of Ireland quickly had a cheque for €20,000 to hand over, while the Irish sports council gave €12,000 and will provide continued financial support and back-up.

The sponsors weren't far away either and mid-way through 2012 Kieran, who's a full-time gymnast, became a BT ambassador which ensures significant sponsorship from the telecommunications giant.

"Getting the financial help was amazing really as I never had any money. I was able to pay off training fees and just live properly. Now I can stick to a strict diet, whereas before that was almost impossible. Also I moved apartment to be near the gym and I don't have to worry about money like I did before."

In the Olympics itself Kieran failed to progress from the heats. A ligament and heel injury suffered in the weeks leading up to the games taking their toll.

Still though his popularity endures, especially amongst the younger female fans! "Thankfully my girlfriend Natasha doesn't get jealous. She's a little bit older than me and I think that helps."

Behan, who says his dream is to set up a gym in Ireland and 'make an Olympian' believes he has what it takes to reach the next Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.

"I really believe my best is yet to come. The aim is to use 2013 as a year to get fully fit. I have issues with my shoulder, my heel and my knee. I need to rest them and get back into shape before competing again.

"The way that I look at it is if I'm healthy I can train, if I can train I can compete and if I can compete I can challenge. Once everything is right I can concentrate on the future and the next Olympic games."

He's achieved more in one year than most of us can hope for in a lifetime . . . and you really get the feeling that he's just getting started.

Irish Independent

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