Thursday 23 November 2017

Miracle man Behan finds his strength in adversity

Kieran Behan's path to the Olympics is straight out of a Hollywood script, writes Marie Crowe

Imagine being told, not once but twice, that you would more than likely never walk again. Then imagine how it feels when, a decade after you've been given the worst news of your life, you are selected to represent your country in gymnastics at an Olympic Games. That's exactly the rollercoaster ride gymnast Kieran Behan has lived through.

It started when the Croydon kid was nine. His parents, dad from Dublin, mam from Monaghan, introduced him to gymnastics in the hope that it would help burn off his excess energy. Behan was playing football, he'd even been accepted into the Crystal Palace academy, and his parents figured gymnastics would complement his game.

As it turned out, Behan was a natural at gymnastics, he could easily "chuck" himself around the gym. The floor discipline was his favourite and, luckily, what he was best at. He felt he was born to be a gymnast so he gave up football to concentrate on the sport he was now crazy about.

However, when he was still just ten, disaster struck. A benign tumour was found in his leg and as a result of surgical complications he was confined to a wheelchair. The damage was so bad that when he woke from the anaesthetic he was unable to do much except scream in pain. Doctors said he wouldn't walk again so his mother gave up work to look after him.

"It was always a lot harder on my family and friends," says Behan.

"I just accepted it. I was just a young kid, I didn't know any different. Then I saw kids running around, doing the usual things kids do and I knew I wanted to be like them. That made me determined to get better."

Fifteen months later, he'd proved the doctors wrong and was back on his feet and training for gymnastics once more. Although it seemed his career was back on track, things quickly went from good to bad. Soon after he'd resumed training, Behan fell off a high bar and suffered a very serious brain injury. He damaged the vestibular canal of the inner ear, which controls balance. For eight weeks he went through hell, his head was strapped to a hospital bed, movement could cause blackouts and this happened over and over again.

His balance and coordination were severely affected. He had to go back to basics, learn to sit up and move all over again. And as a result of all of this, Behan was back in a wheelchair. Doctors and consultants were pessimistic about his chances of recovery. Most felt that he'd be lucky to walk again, let alone do something as basic as a tumble.

But that prognosis didn't impress Behan and he remained determined to compete at gymnastics at the highest level. Something inside wouldn't let him quit. His mother has told harrowing stories about watching him fall over as he tried to take his first steps and how he had to walk with a stick for a long time. It took three years of hard work and rehab but Behan recovered.

"The second injury was the hardest, hearing doctors tell me I wasn't going to walk again or do gymnastics at that age was difficult. Maybe if I hadn't found gymnastics I wouldn't have had the same determination. I wanted to prove people wrong, the doctors and the people who said I'd always be too injured to make it."

Behan declared for Ireland and went on to do well as a junior, but when he hit senior level he suffered further setbacks by rupturing the ACL in both knees. Unsurprisingly, Behan didn't quit and in 2011 he hit the big time with a major breakthrough on the international stage. By the end of the year, he had secured three World Cup medals on floor and had two World Championships under his belt. Then at the start of 2012 he qualified for the Olympics. Behan had arrived.

His story circulated around the country, people wanted to know who he was and how he'd coped with the hand life had dealt him. In the blink of an eye, he'd touched the nation.

"I think when people hear what I've been through it boosts their confidence," explains Behan. "My story is pretty bad but it turned into a positive and people can relate to that. Everyone has their individual problems and everyone is looking to come out the other side. It's triumph over adversity."

Even physically Behan isn't the perfect shape for gymnastics, he's 5'3", which helps when you are throwing yourself in the air, but he's stocky. His thighs are a bit on the large side but he makes it work.

Gymnastics is all about strength to weight ratio and just before he qualified for London he dropped weight, a serious amount. Behan went on a strict diet and exercise plan and went from 72kg to 60kg in a short space of time. For someone as injury-prone as Behan, being at the correct weight is vital. The lighter he is the less impact there is on his bones and ligaments, so injuries are less likely to occur. His upper body looks like it was formed after months of hard work in the weights room but he's actually never done weights. His shape and strength come from lifting his own body.

Because of his past, Behan is understandably apprehensive about his routine. There are some moves on the floor that he will never do because they're too risky. Instead he has certain skills that he can use to meet the routine requirements. Staying injury-free is high on his list of priorities, but since he qualified for London he's started to go for it a bit more and so far he hasn't encountered any problems.

The 22-year-old is only the second gymnast to represent Ireland at an Olympic Games. Barry McDonald got in to Atlanta in 1996 via a wild card. So it's fair to say that gymnastics in Ireland isn't a hugely developed or well-funded sport, even though there are 91 clubs accounting for some 12,000 participants. Behan wants to change that. After the London games he hopes to help build on what he's started in terms of promoting the sport and then when his career finishes he wants to open a gymnastics club in Dublin where he can coach and hold camps.

Behan wasn't funded until this year -- he'd got by with the help of his parents and his club. He's cleaned his local gym before practice to earn some cash and even laboured on his dad's building site. Fundraising to send him to competitions was a regular occurrence. Cake sales, car washes, collection buckets, Behan and his family have done it all. He's funded now by the Irish Sports Council and it's a weight off his shoulders.

"When you are mentally drained about not having enough money to go and compete, that can affect your training and preparation. Now that I don't have to worry about that it's easier to focus on just gymnastics."

Behan's story has the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster and maybe the film will be made if he wins gold in London. But for now, anyone looking for a hero doesn't have to look too far.

Sunday Indo Sport

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