Rio 2016: Is Kieran Behan Team Ireland’s most remarkable Olympian?

Rio 2016: Is Kieran Behan Team Ireland’s most remarkable Olympian?

FROM brain damage to tumours in the thigh, Kieran Behan sure has taken a bumpy ride to get to where he is today.

The Irish gymnast is currently preparing to participate in his second Olympics, but such a feat appeared impossible 17 years ago when doctors told him he would never walk again after having a thigh tumour removed, which caused damage to the nerves in his leg.

“The doctors said ‘you’ll never walk again’ and I had to see a psychiatrist who said you have to accept the worst. But that just drove me on; I wanted to prove them wrong. They were saying it was over but I wasn’t having it,” Behan told The New York Times in 2012.

Having been confined to a wheelchair for 15 months, London-born Behan – whose father is from Dublin and mother from Monaghan – suffered taunting at the hands of his school peers which added to his already unbearable torment.

Kieran Behan in action [Picture Inpho] Kieran Behan in action [Picture Inpho]
“They’d say, ‘oh, look at the cripple,’ and that was so hard for me because, already, I was doing gymnastics and I was short, and I was doing a girls’ sport,” he said. “So a lot of times, I would sit at the kitchen window and watch all the kids running around the park and playing football, and I’d get pretty emotional. All I wanted to do was be an ordinary kid again.”

After overcoming being wheelchair bound for over a year, Behan then suffered a second setback aged 14 when he hit his head on the high bar during practice, causing serious damage to the brain, which saw him have to sit out physical activity altogether for three years.

Behan, now 27, suffered with blackouts on multiple occasions because of the injury as well as losing the ability to talk properly and feed himself.

However, the determined athlete got back to his feet for a second time as shocked doctors looked on, calling the recovery a ‘miracle’.

With the Irishman still holding a firm grip on to his Olympic dream, Behan returned to gymnastic training once again, and – like his injuries prior – also provided obstacles in itself, as he swept gym floors and jumped over tube turnstiles in order to pay for his lessons.

Incredibly, the complications didn’t stop there. Having qualified for his first European Championships in 2010, Behan then disastrously tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. A crushing blow which would surely defeat any athlete’s spirit, but somehow not the plucky Behan.

“It was the nearest I ever came to quitting,” Behan admitted. “Sheer despair, really, but I’d been through a lot worse and knew that, whatever happened, I could always come back.”

Such willpower and inner belief saw Behan bounce back to win three World Cup medals in 2011 to become the first Irish gymnast for 16 years after qualifying for the Olympics in London four years ago.

His dream had finally come true. “I felt like I was in a fairy tale when I got here,” Speaking of London 2012. “All I could think about was: ‘Is this a dream? Tell me this really happening."

Four years on, Behan has now also qualified for Rio – he’s still only the second Irishman to compete in gymnastics at the Olympic Games.