Friday 15 December 2017

Gymnastics: Behan out to beat the odds one more time

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

KIERAN Behan will compete in only two events in today's men's artistic gymnastics qualifying rotations -- the floor and the vault -- in order to maximise his chances at his speciality floor event.

The 5ft 3ins local boy from Croydon -- whose extraordinary life story is the stuff of a movie script -- had also qualified to compete on the rings, pommel horse and parallel bars events.

But Simon Gale, one of his coaching team, said yesterday that they have decided not to risk a recent rotator cuff injury on the rest of the apparatus, which are particularly testing on the shoulder joints.

Gymnasts are almost constantly carrying some form of injury, so Behan's team are not particularly worried -- they just don't want to risk exacerbating anything. It was always the floor routine that was going to be Behan's focus and Gale genuinely believes his charge has an outside shot of getting to the individual floor final, despite the massive odds.

Just eight will make it, from a field of 98 and Behan (22) has an exceptionally early draw. "He's fourth to go on the floor and then we'll have to wait until every one of those 98 are finished, so it will be a particularly long and testing day," Gale said.

But given the personal journey that Behan has made, sitting around for most of the day while the rest of the world's top gymnasts go through their gravity-defying moves will be no hardship.

The story of how the underage Crystal Palace academy footballer lost the power to walk not once, but twice, before he was 13 is genuinely awe-inspiring. If Behan does the unimaginable and makes it through, Disney would hardly need to employ scriptwriters.

Overcoming serious childhood illness? Check! At 10 he ended up in a wheelchair after botched surgery on a benign tumour on his leg.

Fighting adversity a second time? Check! Two years later a fall from the high bar damaged his inner ear and left him with blackouts and little spatial awareness. Back in a wheelchair, he was told he might not walk again, never mind compete.


The Irish angle? Check! His father Phil is from Dublin, his mother Bernie (nee Gavan) is from Newbliss in Monaghan and the south London boy is disgusted when people question his Irishness.

Any other heart-tugging angles? Check and double-check! Apart from twice defying medical opinion and two subsequent torn cruciates, he became a gymnast. However, his family had to scrimp and save and run bake sales and car washes to fund his Olympic dream, which necessitated travelling the globe to qualifying tournaments.

Today, Behan vaults in the Olympic Games, not long after he used to dodge fares by vaulting the Tube stiles. However, his breakthrough finally earned him Olympic Council and Sports Council funding.

It all came together when he finished fourth in the London Test Event when, even though 'wild card' gymnast Barry McDonald represented Ireland in 1996, Behan made history by becoming the first Irish gymnast to actually qualify for the Olympics.

Today's floor routine is the same one he did when he was third in the European Championships in Montpellier in May. It has a particularly high degree of difficulty and includes double-somersaults with double twists.

"The difficulty with gymnastics is that even the slightest mistake can cost you, not just one or two but 20 places," Gale said. "But Kieran has the quality to qualify -- he is among the 20 best floor performers in the world if he gets it right."

When he steps on to the blue mats today, Ireland's most inspirational London Olympian has one flying 90-second routine of power, strength, flexibility and tumbling to prove Gale right.

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