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Kieran Behan Had The World's Proudest Irish Mother After His Olympics Courage

Kieran Behan Had The World's Proudest Irish Mother After His Olympics Courage
By Gavin Cooney Updated

Ever wonder what it is like to watch your son compete in the Olympics?

Bernie Behan could tell you what this is like, but she can tell you much more.

Bernie watched her son Kieran compete for Ireland in the men's gymnastics at the Olympics on Saturday night. Not only did she see him compete, she saw him get injured. It was assumed that Kieran had injured his knee upon landing from his final flip, but Bernie knew otherwise:

We noticed that he had injured himself at the beginning. We just knew.

When he completed the competition, and when he went down and held his knee, we just knew he had injured himself.

Kieran had dislocated his knee upon landing from his first tumble, yet somehow carried on to complete the routine.

Bernie spoke to Balls.ie this afternoon of her experience watching her son compete, and what emerges is an astounding mix of pride and anguish.


You can listen to the interview below. 

Bernie wasn't in Rio on Saturday. She and her family watched her son compete from the living room in their family home in Surrey. As they were in England, they were beholden to the BBC coverage of the event, meaning she actually saw far less of her son than those watching on RTE did.


The BBC showed his first and final apparatus, meaning she saw the moment in which Kieran suffered his injury. She saw her son sat on the ground while his score was revealed, and the only further glimpse she caught was his being wheeled out of the arena in a wheelchair, in the background of a later shot.

Given the time difference, and the need to treat Kieran's injury, an immediate direct line to Kieran was impossible. She rang her family in Monaghan, who were watching on RTE, and asked them to keep the phone line open and turn up the TV, so she might be able to hear any snippet of information regarding the health of her son.

It took fully six hours before she eventually spoke to her son, via a Skype line. Nobody in her house had slept in the meantime.


We had an emotional call through Skype. It was 4 o' clock in the morning his time, after the competition. He couldn't sleep a wink, he was worried about his knee and his career.

We all wanted to hug each other. There was raw emotion there. We were thousands of miles away and we just couldn't hold him. So yeah.... that's emotional....but he's grand.

He surprises me. His achievements, he surprises us. His resilience, time and time again, you just wonder where he gets his strength from. He's very perky, very chipper. He's been through so much, and he will always come back stronger.

The final line is an understatement. It is entirely unsurprising that Behan had the mental strength to finish his routine, because the route he has taken to the Olympics is extraordinary.

When Kieran was ten years old, he was diagnosed with a tumour in his leg. It was noticed during training, when Kieran felt pain warming up. He was brought to hospital, and underwent surgery to remove it. There were complications in the operating room.

It was a very stressful time...it goes through your head, the very worst.. has he got cancer?  You're just terrified of that word.

Anyway, it was almost immediately after he came round after the anaesthetic he was absolutely screaming in agony, and climbing the walls.

It wasn't just a normal kind of scream, or reaction. The sweat was pouring out of him. The child was in complete agony.

We thought there is something seriously wrong going on here, you don't wake up like that. It was very quickly discovered - about a week later - that things had gone a little bit awry in the operation.

During the operation, the surgeons had applied a tourniquet to Kieran's leg. During operations, a tourniquet must be removed every ten minutes or so, to allow the blood to flow, to ensure "the leg doesn't die off", in Bernie's word. This was not done in Kieran's operation, and as a result of his lithe, gymnastic body having virtually no fat, it caused severe nerve damage in his leg.


Kieran remained in hospital for four months, and underwent relentless physio, frequently being attached to a machine that would move Kieran's leg for him. Eventually, he went from a wheelchair to a zimmer frame, but doctors told the ten-year-old Kieran and his family that he would never recover the power in his leg.

Kieran's response to the doctors was remarkable:

He just said that there is no way. He would look at you, and you would look at him, and he was only ten at the time and you would have to speak on his behalf.

You listen to the doctors and you are thinking 'how do you tell a ten-year-old he is never going to walk again. But he would look back and say 'no, this is not happening'.

This is not happening.

He proved true to his word, and was back training as a gymnast at the age of 12. Extraordinarily, another injury struck. While warming up on the High Bar, Kieran slipped and fell, hitting the back of his head off the bar. He was rushed to hospital, but it was over a week before his injuries were analysed. The swelling was so bad that he was strapped to a hospital for a week, before it was confirmed that he had suffered brain damage. Kieran had broken his vestibular canal.

The vestibular canal is the part of the brain which detects rotary movements and is the human body's main contributor to maintaining balance. This function was destroyed, and he essentially had to learn every single basic human movement. His mother's account of this is incredible:

Eventually he started to wake up, and as soon as he woke up, wth the eye movement, he started going into fits. The vestibular canal was so askew, as soon as he opened his eyes and moved them, the body says 'shut down, shut down, there's something wrong happening.

Eventually, after weeks, we got him to sit up - a very small amount - where he was able to sit up a fraction and not pass out. Eventually we got him into a sitting position, and then we had to teach him how to feed himself and how to turn his head, so he wouldn't pass out.

From there we eventually got him to put his legs down onto the floor - because there is a sensation from the bed to the floor - and the body didn't recognise the floor so again the body would shut down,  he would go into fits and pass out.

Even to move a cup in front of his head would set the alarm bells off and he would faint or go into a fit.

The body had to learn to recognise a hard floor, had to recognise a soft floor, had to recognise grass, concrete, a car passing...everything. It took us nearly three years.

Despite having to relearn the most basic of human movements Kieran remained determined to show he could master the most difficult of them on gymnastics apparatus. Doctors, however, were once again certain he would never walk again. He was taken to a child psychiatrist to be told this news. If you are ever looking for one moment that can sum up the spirit of a true Olympian, then write this down:

He had to see a child psychiatrist, who tried to tell him gently that he would never walk again. I wasnt allowed in there. They were trying to see if he was able to accept this kind of information without any kind of guidance or any adult influence.

Kieran told the psychiatrist 'I hit the back of my head. There's nothing wrong with the front of my head' and he pointed to the brain. He said 'there's nothing wrong with this'. Then the psychiatrist comes out, and Kieran is wheeled out after him.

The psychiatrist came to me and said that 'there's nothing wrong with that fella'.

They were amazed at his determination and they said there's nothing wrong with this fella.

For a 12-year-old to tell that to a psychiatrist...

The road back was arduous, and Bernie admits that it was a tough time. 'It was a struggle. It was a struggle for the child, it was a struggle for the family. But you just do it. You just do. You don't feel sorry for yourself. You just do'.

Bernie has been by Kieran's side throughout these extraordinary years. To watch him injure himself again, this time from thousands of miles away, is understandably torturous. As appalling an ordeal as this is, there is consolation to be sought in Kieran's spirit. Amid the anxiety, pride will always shine through.

People talk about the Olympics and medals, but sometimes you see some phenomenal achievements, of courage, and human endeavour, and Kieran embodies the true spirit of the Olympics, and what it truly means to be an Olympian.

We're very, very proud of him. He's our champion, and he's our hero and he's a true inspiration.

There is so much wrong about the Olympics.

But amid all the crooks, cheats and corruption, you can't but see the heroes shine through.

You just do.


See Also: Marathon Wrecker Father Neil Horan Has Not Gone Away, You Know. (If Only He Would.)


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