THERE WERE MORNINGS when Kieran Behan had to put his hand in his pocket and count the change before deciding on a training plan for the day.
A tenner? That would just be enough to get him to the gym, a two-hour commute across London.
There were competitions when he knew that one bent knee, one toe a millimetre out of place, would be the difference between making the final and collecting enough prize money to pay for food, physio and transport for another few weeks.
But he had come so far, come through so much, that money was the last thing that would stop him.
Once-in-a-lifetime news has been commonplace for Behan, and not always positive, but when he picked up the phone to learn that he had qualified for the London Olympics his world was turned on its head again, this time for the better.
Before January 2012 Behan was a stranger, living life off the radar and fuelled by an ambition to wear the green and white singlet on sport’s biggest stage. He was the first Irish gymnast to qualify for the Olympics in 16 years but his achievement was far greater than that.
Few people knew the name. Even fewer knew that he had defied injuries and illnesses so severe that it was remarkable he was able to compete at all. An operation to remove a benign tumour in his thigh left him in a wheelchair at the age of 10; when he overcame the odds and made it back to the gym, he suffered a serious brain injury following an accident on the high bar and was back in a wheelchair once more.
Follow that up with a lengthy list of break, fractures, tears and sprains and it’s not difficult to see why getting to London was not only the realisation of a dream but also the apex of an emotional rollercoaster. He was disappointed not to qualify for the floor final but as he stood for interviews afterwards, the enormity of what he had just done coursed through him and he broke down in tears.
Those days will never lose their magical aura but just getting there was never going to be enough for Behan. Now he looks back on the experience as the game-changer that has set him up for his next big dream.
For one thing, finances aren’t as tight. Today his main sponsor BT Ireland announced that they are extending their partnership for another 12 months. With their help Behan has moved to Surbiton and now has only a 10-minute commute to the Tolworth gym where he works with coach Demetrios Bradshaw. The days of scrabbling for loose change are gone.
“It’s chicken-egg situation,” he explains. “You have to do something for someone to stand up and say we’re going to help you. Being so injured, that’s not going to happen.
“In 2011, I had to go to every single World Cup I could to medal and to earn money. That was the only way I could, to achieve a medal or a final place at a World Cup and then receive prize money. That prize money then was my training fees and my travel for the next however long until the next World Cup.”
Everything was shaped by that financial bottom line. The risk-versus-reward pinch forced him to deliberately pare back his routines and concentrate on low-difficulty exercises even though it put him at a disadvantage when it came to scoring points in competition.
I had a lot of pressure, not only having to go out and compete and be a normal athlete but knowing that if I don’t do well here, I can’t afford to train.
I had to do routines that I know I can execute perfectly and every time I put my hand up, I’ll got through, and I had to rely on that. There’s no point in saying ‘I can do this skill and I can do this skill and let’s just put it in,’ because I couldn’t have any risk. If I had any risk a final place could maybe not happen. I had to say I’ve this start value and execute it perfectly and a final will happen, and I had to just try and hit that every time.
Things are different now. There is much less pressure and Behan has been able to taper off his competition schedule this year and focus on training instead. He had micro-fracture surgery to address a problem with his knee and is concentrating on developing his weaker disciplines: the rings, the parallel bars and the high bar.
He’s not even sure if he’ll compete at the World Championships, which take place in Antwerp in September and October. Once upon a time he would have felt compelled to go but now, every decision has to be seen in terms of the bigger picture and a road which will hopefully lead to Rio.
“I really want to have things mapped out properly and use this time wisely, rehab any little niggles that are there and really upgrade on everything that I’m doing. The higher and bigger start values that I can do and execute to the way I know I can, the easier it’s going to be for me in the long run. I’ve actually got a bit of time on my side and it’s nice to be doing that.
“It would be very difficult if I hadn’t done London because I’d be in a situation where this year is important because I’d have to build for experience. I’ve got to be known by the judges and people from other teams so they say ‘That’s Kieran Behan from Ireland, he’s good on this, he’s good on that.’
I’ve already done that work so now it’s just looking after my body and doing what’s going to put me in the best position for Rio. You’ve got to think like that, you’ve got to think of the long ball game rather than the here and now. If I do that, I’m just going to run my body into the ground and have nothing left in me by Rio. I really now want to just focus and train as hard as I can for the year and really take it from there.
He may be the man who has put Irish gymnastics back on the map again but he’s only one part of a team with equally grand ambitions. Last year was the first time since 1996 that Ireland sent a team to the European Championships, where they finished 15th. The 2014 Europeans and Worlds are their major priority now, again with a view to qualifying for the 2016 Olympics.
In Behan they have a leader and a role model but the resilience he has shown to get to this point has been inspirational far beyond the four walls of a gym. That story will forever be a part of him but now, he’s ready for the next chapter.