Dublin: 11°C Friday 22 October 2021

'I'm a 27-year-old Olympian funded by my parents, riding a moped to training like a teenager'

Gymnast Kieran Behan admits justifying his existence is becoming increasingly difficult but he remains determined to overcome obstacles to inspire others.

Kieran Behan has qualified for a second Olympics.
Kieran Behan has qualified for a second Olympics.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

TOLWORTH GYMNASTICS CLUB, southwest London. Kieran Behan arrives on his moped, having made the journey across town from the building site he spent the morning working on.

It’s a couple of weeks after he secured qualification for Rio and his second Olympic Games. You’d hardly know it.

The high of winning silver at the HSBC Barra Olympic Arena last month has quickly been replaced by a return to the real world. Work, train, worry, repeat.

Behan’s story is one of defiance, bravery and pure determination. It is as moving as it is inspiring but when his fleeting moment in the sun is over, he must then come to terms with the reality of the situation.

Sporting a white sleeveless gym top, with ‘IRL’ emblazoned on the back, Behan goes through his routine.

The small hall, not unlike a parish centre kitted out with equipment, is a hive of activity with gymnasts of all ages, and abilities, hanging from bars and dreaming that one day they too could be preparing for an Olympic Games.

Behan spends close to 35 hours in the gym a week, working closely with his coach to fine-tune the routine he will perform in August. He already knows exactly what that will be and now it’s about perfecting it to execute on the biggest stage of all.

Kieran Behan The 27-year-old is a proud Irishman, determined to fly the flag for his country. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The sessions are intense but it is here where Behan is most comfortable. He doesn’t need to think about the bills that need to be paid or how he can continue to justify his existence as a gymnast.

It’s only when he leaves through the gym doors that those concerns surface again.

“I feel most at home when I’m training,” he tells The42. “I have no worries and I’m controlling everything. I can make myself feel better by executing my skills to the best of my ability.

“That is my get-out, I can hide away from reality, it’s when I step out of the gym and hop back on the moped and make the journey home that I’m hoping there’s nothing down the road.

“I’m 27 years of age now, I’m going to and from training on a moped like a 15-year-old and real life is there. My parents aren’t going to support a grown man to keep his Olympic dream going forever, and that’s what’s very difficult.

“I don’t know what the future holds but all I can do is be prepared as best I can. I have to accept it. I just have to live for the moment.”

Behan, who was born in London to Irish parents, receives just €380, which converts to £300, a month in funding to sustain his training programme. He has to find other means of income, coaching young kids and also helping his father out as a builder.

“It’s good that I’m a gymnast because you need to be good at balancing everything,” he jokes.

If it wasn’t for sponsors such as BT Ireland, who he signed for as brand ambassador shortly before London 2012, and Electric Ireland, Behan would constantly be in the red.

“I would have debts coming out of my eyeballs,” he reveals, certainly not joking. “With hardly any support, how can I train and be the best athlete I can be? It’s very difficult.

“When I look it as a human being and a 27-year-old man, it’s very difficult to accept and still feel optimistic and get up and out of bed everyday. But when I put my athlete’s head on again, I say right then it’s a different story.”

It’s that ability to find a glimmer of light in even the darkest situation which has shaped Behan’s journey to this point. His story is one of true spirit and endeavour.

Twice he found himself on the canvas, floored by cruel twists of fate, but twice he mustered the courage to pick himself back up and defy all odds.

At the age of 10, Behan was told by doctors that he would never walk again. He would be wheelchair-bound for life after an operation on a benign tumour went wrong.

“That’s maybe my talent or gift, I am very, very determined,” he offers. “I can focus a lot on making something positive and they’re traits from my parents and the people I have around me.

“I wasn’t just doing it for myself, when it comes to things like that you’re not just doing it for you but the people that are around you as well. To know when I was lying on that hospital bed, especially for the first number of weeks that my parents were seeing their son strapped to the hospital bed.

“They were telling me everything would be okay. ‘You can do it son, don’t worry, keep believing, we’ll get there, don’t worry.’ But knowing when they went behind the curtain it was a completely different story was so difficult.

“They were completely distraught, seeing their little boy there unable to walk, unable to do the simplest of tasks. That’s what inspired me, I wanted to do it for them, I wanted to do it for the people around me.”

WhatsApp-Image-20160515 (1) Behan is part of Electric Ireland's #ThePowerWithin campaign. Source: Sportsfile

And so his recovery began. Step-by-step, Behan fought his way back. While family played an integral in helping him along the way, it was the sport of gymnastics which focused his mind.

“Maybe if that had happened when I was an adult it may have been very different, I don’t know,” he adds. “But I still have that young child mentality and nothing phases me. I just get on with everyday life.

“It was only last Christmas I sat down with my Mum and Dad and spoke about it in-depth. I knew this year was going to be Rio qualification and about my story and everything like that. It was the first time I’d really spoken about it and really felt the power of what happened to them.”

As he sat in the family home with his parents, Behan came to fully appreciate the meaning of life and the effect his time in hospital had on his family. Not once, but twice.

His father, from Dublin, spoke of the harrowing moments en route to A&E after a high-bar accident left Behan with a traumatic brain injury and severe damage to the vestibular canal of his inner ear.

“That really hit home,” he continues. “The accident was towards the end of the session. My Dad was in the car park and someone ran out to get him screaming, ‘Kieran has just had an accident.’

“I was in and out of consciousness. My Dad took me to the hospital and when we got there I was completely out. He said he handed his son over and he thought his son was dead.

View this post on Instagram

We did it!!! 🍀 Rio Olympic Games here we come. I want to say a massive thank you to everyone for the love and support, words can't described how thrilled I am to qualify to my second Olympic Games 😁 A lot of thanks are in order firstly to my family and amazing girlfriend @natasha_1986 I'm eternally great full for all the sacrifices,the shoulders to cry on through tormented years of injury and the belief in me you all had I would never change a thing on this road to Rio. A massive thank you to my friends&teammates, my club Tolworth gymnastics club everyone has had a part to play in this journey. Lastly a huge thank you to this amazing man standing next to me in this photo, a man who has stood by me and believed in me for nearly a decade now a cancer survivor, a fighter like myself, my friend and coach @sigale79 its an honour to share this journey with you. X #wedidit #Rio2016 #Rioqualified #TeamIreland 🍀

A post shared by Kieran Behan OLY. (@kieranbehanirl) on

“That, seeing someone you look up to all your life and seeing them holding tears back because of you, that touched me so much and I never realised the impact it had on them.

“It’s a credit to them that I’m determined as I am because they’re just as determined. They had to keep going and smile, my Dad had to go out there and earn when my family were going through something difficult.”

But it was all worth it. The dark days. The hospital visits. The sleepless nights. The sacrifices. They all paid off, eventually.

The road to London was far from smooth, there were further injuries along the way, but no obstacle was getting in Behan’s way. He became the first male Irish gymnast to qualify for the Games four years ago.

“It was a dream come true,” he recalls. “London was a whirlwind of emotions for me, to go through everything and overcome all the adversity was a huge emotional rollercoaster.

“I just wanted to embrace it all and grab the opportunity with both hands but unfortunately I make mistakes. I fell and made a major error and that’s what cost me a place in the final.

“That was the hardest time, after London. I came back and had to have surgery on my left knee and I had no support. I was in no man’s land and I was lonely not knowing where my career was going.

“I thought my knee had given out and my body had finally said no. I didn’t have the support, that was the lowest of the low, going through depression.

Kieran Behan holds his head after the floor exercise London proved to be a bittersweet experience. Source: ©William Cherry/Presseye

“Me and my girlfriend went through it all, just to keep me in high spirits and I had to draw from all my experiences and say you know what, it’s another obstacle, just step it up a gear and go for it.

“That was when I came closest to quitting and saying enough was enough. I don’t think I’ll ever finish because my body gives in. That will never be a problem. It will be life. Life will be there. There will be more bills, more debts. That’s what will stop me. I’ve had those conversations with my coach and family.”

For now, however, the focus remains on Rio. What happens after that remains unclear and will naturally depend on what happens in August.

“Rio is a chance of redemption for me. I want to focus on achieving my goal and the aim is to make two finals. I’m a realist and I know in sport that anything can happen but as long as I know I’ve done everything then I won’t have any regrets.

“Redemption for me would be going to Rio and people turning around and saying ‘that’s a fantastic performance’. I am going to represent Ireland and to put on a show. I want to inspire others and help them draw from adversity.”

Behan, who is part of Electric Ireland’s #ThePowerWithin campaign which highlights the resolve of Ireland’s Olympians, added:

“I’m an athlete but a determined character and want to make a legacy. A medal hanging on my mantelpiece would be phenomenal but I aspire to make history for Ireland.

“I want to make people proud. My everyday goal is to inspire people and give people hope.”

The42 is on Snapchat! Tap the button below on your phone to add!

Cork’s Bryan Keane seals his first Olympic triathlon spot with strong finish in Japan

14 things we learned from the first episode of RTÉ’s Road to Rio documentary

About the author:

Ryan Bailey

Read next: