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Behan overcomes adversity to make Olympic Finals

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Eleanor Oldroyd Eleanor Oldroyd | 14:45 UK time, Friday, 13 January 2012

It's not hard to understand Kieran Behan's ecstatic disbelief at making the 2012 Olympics, becoming only the second Irish gymnast in history to qualify.

"I kept myself awake yesterday because I didn't want to wake up and it not be true," he says. "It's so, so surreal."

There'll be plenty of stories of triumph over adversity at London 2012, but I'm prepared to bet that there won't be many more inspiring.

When Behan was just 10, a non-cancerous tumour was discovered in his left leg. The operation to remove it went wrong and he was left in a wheelchair with severe nerve damage. His parents were told he might never walk again, let alone do gymnastics.

Kieran Behan

Kieran Behan overcame head injuries and defied the odds to make it into the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo: Getty

Amazingly, he did both, but 15 months later, a fall in training put him back into the wheelchair.

"I was on the high bar, and it was a freak accident really - I slipped and landed the back of my head on the bar.

"I damaged something called the vestibular canal in my inner ear; basically it's the organ which controls balance, telling me whether I'm going left or right, up or down. I had to learn how to sit up in the hospital bed properly."

Back at home in Surrey with his Irish-born parents, Kieran, 22, began the long road to recovery yet again.

"My mum used to wheel me to the kitchen window and we'd sit watching traffic go past so I could get my head moving.

"We'd throw a ball against the wall to try to focus my eyes, and it took a long, long time. I was out of gymnastics for about three years."

You might have thought that the mental scars of his accident might have put Behan off such a precarious sport for life. Did he ever have flashbacks while balancing on the pommel horse, for example?

"I definitely don't like pommel horse, that's my weakest event! But it was a freak accident. The body is more capable than anyone knows, but your mind is the most powerful thing.

There's no point in being scared, because I love gymnastics - it's probably made me the person I am. If I didn't do gymnastics, maybe I'd still be in a wheelchair now."

The path to the Olympics still wasn't straightforward for Kieran. Anterior cruciate ligament damage to both his knees in the space of a year meant his first full season as a senior gymnast was 2011 - a season in which he was crowned World Cup Series floor champion, and in which he won the chance to qualify for London 2012 at the O2.

When the news came through that he'd done it, his mum was the first person he called.

"I was with my coach, and we put her on speakerphone, and we were all just giggling and shouting and crying. And it means so much to everyone back in Ireland, too."

It's a remarkable tale for a gymnast who, up to now, has been entirely self-funded. His club, Tolworth in Surrey, has sold cakes and bacon butties to their members in support of Behan, who's also worked for them as a cleaner, and for his dad as a building labourer to raise cash for his trips to competitions abroad.

But as 2012 gets underway, Kieran Behan feels the time has come for a change in his fortunes. His aspirations for the Olympics are simple: "To stay injury free! And just get there and enjoy it, it may never come round again. Just to have got there shows that miracles do happen. I've definitely got a bit of the luck of the Irish now!"



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