Kieran Behan: A warrior, an inspiration, and an Irish Olympian worthy of the title

Irish gymnast has overcome many lifetimes of adversity just to make it this far.

Kieran Behan on the rings Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

– Niall Kelly reports from the Rio Olympic Arena, Rio de Janeiro

TO THE NAKED eye, you wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss as Kieran Behan rolled through the first tumble of his floor exercise.

It was only a minute later, when he landed his final move only to pull up sharply, reaching for his left knee, that it became obvious that something was wrong.

The night wasn’t supposed to end this way. Four years on from his debut in London, Behan was back at the Olympics, determined to show the world what he was truly capable of.

From horse and rings to vault and both sets of bars, his shredded hands caked in a mix of blood and chalk, he accomplished that and more, giving himself an outside shot at making the all-around final as he prepared for the floor, his favoured and strongest apparatus.

He had proven his point, to those in the arena as well as to those proudly watching at home and around the world.

So when his left knee dislocated on that first tumble, he could have stopped there and then, safe in the knowledge that nobody would even think twice about the decision.

But that’s not Kieran Behan.

Kieran Behan dismounts from the rings Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I nearly stopped after the first move but, I just thought, go for it and, yeah, then I could feel it completely go after my dismount.

It’s one of those things. As soon as my feet touched the ground on that first tumble and the knee went, I just knew that it was about survival and just getting through the rest of the routine.

Does this surprise you? It really shouldn’t.

This is a young man who has already overcome many lifetimes of adversity in his 27 years. His journey to this point is well-known, not that it makes it any less remarkable.

Diagnosed with a tumour in his thigh at age 11, and then wheelchair-bound for more than a year after suffering nerve damage during the operation to have it removed.

After he dragged himself back to full health and back into the gym, fate dealt him an even more cruel hand. In a freak training accident, he hit his head on the horizontal bar, resulting in a severe brain injury that left him wheelchair-bound again.

Doctors told him that he would never walk again. Behan, politely, decisively, disagreed and instead made history as only the second gymnast to represent Ireland at the Olympic Games four years ago.

Kieran Behan during the vault Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

London ended in tears — tears of disappointment, rather than pain — as he slipped twice during his floor routine and failed to qualify for the final.

“I’ll come back stronger,” he vowed, and then set about doing just that. With just €380 a month coming in in funding, supplemented by a couple of timely sponsorships and the unfailing support of his parents, it proved to be a monumental challenge in its own right.

“I don’t know anyone that has had the journey I’ve had,” he said, crutches by his side, in the bowels of the Rio Olympic Arena on Saturday night.

It all depends on the financial state for me. I’ve gone through hell in terms of just trying to survive and keep my dream alive. It just depends on what happens there.

“I’m so grateful for all the support and the love back home and the support from my family and friends and everyone involved in my gymnastics – it really does mean the world to me.”

Kieran Behan on the pommel horse Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Qualifying for the floor final would have been an incredible achievement; a place in the all-around perhaps even more so.

In the end, Behan finished 38th, his last chance undone by this latest piece of cruel misfortune.

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“I think, for me personally, with my journey that I’ve had and the troubles I’ve had, this Games, for me, was about proving myself as an athlete.

And to even qualify through everything I’ve been through, for me as an athlete, that is my proudest moment.

“I know coming away from this, and in a few years’ time or whatever, I know I’m going to be very, very proud of what I’ve done here.

“And I just want to say a massive thank you to everyone and all the people who stayed up late and supported me. It really does mean the world to me and I thank them so much for tuning in.

“If I’ve inspired anyone out there, then that’s what I’m going to be so proud of. To have gone out there and give it my all, you can’t really ask for much more.”

An MRI scan and a proper diagnosis on his injured knee will follow but Behan finished with the same positive, philosophical outlook that has carried him through every adversity and out on the far side stronger.

“At the end of the day, life is life, isn’t it? You’ve got to find positivity and pick yourself back up and whatever happens, happens.

I knew that going into here. I knew the scores I was capable of and the physical shape I was in. Five pieces were good and then there comes the story of my life – there’s the bad luck.

He chuckles. “Heh, I’ll have a book one day and it’ll make it even better for that.”

– An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Behan as the first Irish gymnast at the Olympics; Barry MacDonald (Atlanta 1996) was the first.

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Niall Kelly

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