Once Unable to Walk, Gymnast Beats Odds to Compete at Olympics

Kieran Behan, 23, overcame a series of life-altering injuries to make it to the Games

Photo: Ian Walton/Getty

Watching Kieran Behan flip through the air, you’d never imagine the Irish gymnast overcame a series of injuries so severe that doctors told him he would never walk again.

At just 5-feet-4-inches tall, Behan, 23, struggled with a series of setbacks that would change his life forever, but his unwavering spirit and dedication to his sport led him to the 2012 Olympic Games in London, reports The New York Times.

Behan first started gymnastics at the age of 8, when he excelled at tumbling. But by the time he was 10, doctors found a tumor the size of a golf ball in his leg.

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While the tumor turned out to be benign, complications from a tourniquet left him with nerve damage that caused loss of feeling in his left foot. The pain was so intense that simply brushing against it would cause Behan to shriek in agony.

“Doctors told me, stop thinking about your crazy dreams because you’ll never walk again and you must accept that it’s over for you,” Behan said. “But I just kept saying: ‘No, no, no – this is not the rest of my life. This is not how it’s going to play out.’ ”

In addition to living with the incredible physical pain, Behan also struggled with his peers and was often bullied by classmates. “They’d say, ‘Oh, look at the cripple,’ and that was so hard for me because, already, I was doing gymnastics and I was short, and I was doing a girls’ sport,” he said.

But 15 months later, Behan surprised his critics when he returned to gymnastics.

Unexpected Setbacks

A mere eight months after Behan recovered from his leg injury, however, he sustained another blow that would again jeopardize his gymnastics career.

During a routine, Behan smacked the back of his head on the metal horizontal bar, resulting in a traumatic brain injury. It also caused damage to the vestibular canal of his inner ear, which affected his balance. Behan blacked out repeatedly, “maybe thousands of times,” said his mother, Bernie Behan. He also had difficulty performing such basic functions as walking without stumbling.

After two months in the hospital, Bernie grew frustrated with her son’s treatment. With the hospital refusing to discharge her son, she quit her job as an aerobics instructor to care for him.

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Two years after the accident, Behan regained his hand-eye coordination and was able to walk again thanks to continual physical therapy. Excited, Behan returned to gymnastics – not that the road to the Olympic Games has been easy.

Returning to his beloved sport, he sustained multiple injuries including a broken arm, a fractured wrist and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Bernie said she wondered, “How much more of these injuries can he take?” Yet her son never gave up.

Determined to Make It

In 2011, Behan’s perseverance finally paid off. He won three World Cup medals – including Ireland’s first World Cup gold medal in the floor exercise.

With the world watching, Behan will compete in the vault, horizontal bar and floor exercise at the Games in London. Although Behan doesn’t think he’ll take home a medal, he hopes his story will inspire others to be brave in the face of adversity.

“I felt like I was in a fairy tale when I got here,” he said of arriving in London. “All I could think about was: Is this a dream? Tell me this [is] really happening.'”

“Look at me now, an Olympian. They said it was impossible, but I did it,” he said.

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