Friday 23 March 2018

How big 'O' turns the best of legs into jelly

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

JUST how tightly the big 'O' grips and shreds the nerve-endings of its protagonists was demonstrated by several young Irish athletes over the past 48 hours.

Sycerika McMahon (17) stepped timidly towards the media posse in swimming's 'mixed zone' yesterday but, even as the first question was being posed, she burst into tears and fled.

Grainne Murphy, though only 19, is far more experienced at handling post-race inquisitors, with chlorine still dripping from her sinuses. Yet, she too couldn't face the post-mortem, shaking her head firmly and fleeing past, stony-faced, at a determined speed.

Some say the oft-used description of the Olympics as "four years for one day" is wholly inadequate; that "a lifetime for one day" is much more accurate.

It certainly took an extraordinary lifetime of adversity and knock-backs for Irish gymnast Kieran Behan (23) to qualify for London 2012. Even the 'New York Times' had come to worship at the feet of his fairytale in the preamble to his Olympic debut.

But he too was eventually distracted by the massive pressure of simply becoming an Olympian.

With just two final tumbling passes left in an otherwise perfect floor routine on Saturday, the enormity of what he'd achieved hit Behan.

His focus took a speed wobble, he fluffed both landings and, in the space of 20 seconds, his chance of qualifying had gone.

When he walked into the arena he had kept his focus, despite immediately spotting his parents and a tricolour in the crowd and hearing his name called out.


There were never any Irish flags or fans when he was competing on the World Cup circuit to fulfil this unlikely Olympic dream but, still, he kept telling himself, "c'mon, stay focused, it's just another competition, another arena, just do your job", and he wasn't actually nervous.

But, in one fleeting moment, just 20 seconds away from completing his 70-second floor routine, a trip-switch went inside his head and his focus shifted imperceptibly.

"Just as I was doing my link to the corner I was just thinking... it really hit me then. I was like 'I can do this' but every emotion and every memory that I've ever had from..."

His voice trailed away and faltered for the umpteenth time. He had to regularly stop to regain his composure but, like his routine, he battled manfully to hold it together.

"Today's been an extraordinary day. To know that my impossible dream was finally going to come through, to know that I was going to be out there, to be able to walk into the Olympic arena and give it a shot.

"It hit me in the middle of my routine," he confessed. "As I was going through it, I was like, 'wow. I'm doing it'. Then I just got a bit of jelly-legs and it went from there.

"But, at the end of the day, I want to hold my head up high, and with a smile," he grinned, among the tears and the talk of how he will profit from this experience.

"To go from being told, 'that's it, you're never going to step out of a wheelchair', to take a step on to an Olympic arena and put my hand up in front of the judges is just a dream come through.

"I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for my family and friends and all the support I've had throughout my life.

"If I hadn't made those two errors I would have scored a very big score, so I can take that positive away. I think everything got to me today, having been through everything that I have in my life."

And then Behan said the most extraordinary thing -- the kind that sports psychologists will leap upon as proof of one of their theories.

"It was very difficult to know that there wasn't an obstacle there," he said, "that I'd done it and was living my dream."

There it was, that great Olympic dilemma stripped back and verbalised in one inspirational athlete's sentence.

All your life you strive to take this difficult singular journey. Yet, when you finally take flight and are soaring towards the sun, flying free with all the shackles shaken off and the heat of it beginning to warm your cheeks, you look down and the scale of that enormous height momentarily defeats you.

Irish Independent

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