An Irishman told by doctors he would be wheelchair-bound for life after an operation went wrong instead took part in the London Olympics in gymnastics and had his story featured on NBC and in The New York Times.
Kieran Behan was left hardly able to walk and highly sensitive to even the slightest touch to his leg. Doctors told him to prepare to be wheelchair bound for the rest of his life.
“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.’”
Before the series of unfortunate injuries threatened Behan, 23, of Ireland, he had fallen in love with and set his dreams at one day attending the Olympics as a gymnast.
This week will see Behan’s dreams come true, despite several adversities he overcame in his journey to the Summer Olympics.
The New York Times traced Behan’s inspirational story from his childhood up until today. Behan remembers first being enamored by gymnastics at the age of six while watching them on the Summer Olympic Games. At age 8, he began taking lessons and showed great promise as a tumbler.
However, at age 10, all that promise was seriously threatened when a benign tumor was found on Behan’s leg. During the surgery, Behan’s doctor left a tourniquet on too long and tied too tight, causing nerve damage in the aspiring gymnast’s left leg.
Coupled with the bleak outlook, Behan remembers cruel schoolchildren taunting him at the time.
“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,” said Behan.
“So a lot of times, I would sit at the kitchen window and watch all the kids running around the park and playing football, and I’d get pretty emotional. All I wanted to do was be an ordinary kid again.”
Despite all the adversity, Behan made an astounding comeback. Fifteen months after the botched surgery, Behan was getting back to normal.
However, only about 8 months after Behan was back in the swing of things at gymnastics, he encountered was has been described to be a “freak accident.”
Behan smacked the back of his head on the metal horizontal bar during a routine and tumbled to the ground in a lump, resulting in traumatic brain injury and severe damage to the vestibular canal of his inner ear.
The damage affected Behan so greatly that the slightest movement could trigger him to blackout, which he did perhaps thousands of times following the accident.
Behan’s mother Bernie Behan remembers her son struggling to turn his head, feed himself and walk without stumbling and looking as if he were dead drunk.
“He kept telling the doctors, ‘I can walk — tell them, Mom, that I can walk,’ and my heart was breaking,” said Bernie. “I’d go to the car park and cry my eyes out, then walk back and say: ‘Yes, Kieran, you can do this. We can do this. I believe you, son.’"
Two months of slow progress in the hospital following the freak accident left both Bernie and Kieran frustrated. One day, Bernie scooped up Kieran and took him home, quit her job and resolved herself to care for her injured son.
Two years would pass from the freak accident until Kieran finally began to regain hand-eye coordination and was back on his feet, leading to doctors nicknaming him the "miracle boy."
Kieran was keen to head back to gymnastics, so off he went with his Olympic dream still thriving. It was a family effort to raise funds to finance the lessons - Kieran would sweep the floors of the gym and jump over subway turnstiles to get to practice in the most thrifty manner. His parents would host bake sales, candy sales and car washes to help make ends meet.
Still, Kieran was not in the clear. He broke his arm and fractured his wrist resulting in so many hospital visits during his teenage years that officials suspected he might been being abused.
In 2009, Kieran suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, forcing him into six months of rehabilitation. In 2010, just six weeks prior to his senior debut at the European championships, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his other knee.
The 2010 injury nearly did him and his Olympic dream in for good, but still after so much, Kieran persevered.
One of Kieran’s coaches, Simon Gale, said “He made it back from all of those other setbacks, but that one was the hardest for him because the championships were just around the corner, and he was ready.”
“He couldn’t handle it. I wouldn’t say he was suicidal, but I’m just glad that his girlfriend was there to watch him at night.”
Similarly, Kieran’s doting mother Bernie wondered how much more her son’s body could endure.
Like he had done so many other times though, Kieran picked himself up again, focused as ever as becoming an Olympian.
In 2011, Kieran won three World Cup medals, including Ireland’s first World Cup gold medal, in the floor exercise, which set him up nicely for his best year yet, 2012.
After all of his injuries, it only makes sense that right now Kieran has a slight tear in his rotator cuff, something he fears could turn into a full blown injury coinciding with his dream of participating in this summer’s Olympics in London.
The tear in his rotator cuff meant he barely made it through his final practice before heading for London for the Games.
“I felt like I was in a fairy tale when I got here,” Kieran said of the London Games. “All I could think about was: ‘Is this a dream? Tell me this really happening.’ ”
In London, Behan competed in the vault, the horizontal bar and his specialty, the floor exercise. However, the 23 year old Irishman wasn’t expecting a medal, or even to really make it to the finals.
Instead, Behan hopes that his struggles can serve as an inspiration to not only other athletes, but anyone facing hardships in their life.
“I think it’s probably just in my blood,” said Behan, of his astounding resiliency. “I was just born to do this.”
No Irish Need Apply? Not anymore