JOE meets inspirational Irish gymnast Kieran Behan
JOE caught up with Irish Olympic gymnast Kieran Behan to talk about his amazing Olympic experience, the road to Rio and having to send FIFA apologies on Twitter like the rest of us mere mortals.
If there’s a more enthusiastic Irish sporting figure around than Kieran Behan then we’d like to meet him. The 24-year old gymnast burst onto the national consciousness last year after qualifying for and performing at the London Olympics, a story made even more remarkable by the lengths Behan had to go to be even able to compete, never mind at the highest level of all.
Having once been told he’d never walk again, Behan recovered from a career-threatening injury in his teens and then suffered torn cruciate ligaments in both knees in quick succession before defying the odds to win three World Cup medals and top the world rankings in 2011 before his landmark appearance in London last year.
Kieran was in Dublin last week after BT announced that they would be renewing their sponsorship of the London-based athlete for another 12 months and JOE had the pleasure of half an hour in his company.
As well as shooting the breeze about having to send FIFA apologies and pledging his support to the Monaghan footballers (his mother is from Monaghan) in their search for Sam, he also spoke of his relentless quest for improvement and his plans to make the 2016 Olympics in Rio even more memorable than his debut in London last year.
JOE: Great to meet you Kieran, tell us what you’re up to at the moment and what the plan is for the weeks and months ahead?
Kieran Behan: I had a lot of downtime after the Olympics, I put on a bit of weight and everything (laughs) but now I’m back to full-time training, I’m training really hard, I’ve lost all my holiday weight and now my main focus is to really use this year wisely.
I want to really upgrade everything, to improve my strength and I’ve really worked hard on diet and nutrition, that’s really been my main focus this year; putting things into place that weren’t there and making sure I have structure to every training session I do - whether it’s, for example, the amount of strength sessions I’m doing a week - and making sure I have structure and a daily routine.
"The more people say that I’ve inspired them, the more it inspires me to continue what I’m doing and to make people proud and that’s my main aim."
BT have really helped me in that regard. For example, I have cut down a two-hour commute to 10 minutes, I’m a lot closer to the gym and I now have transport, I get to zoom around on my bike, which is perfect. Before that it wouldn’t have been possible to do the amount of training I’m doing, it’s really changed for me. I can train as much as I want and do all the rehab I need to do to deal with niggling injuries etc.
Everything has really changed and is really on the up and it’s great that BT are still willing to sponsor and support me; I’m just so grateful really.
JOE: Are there any tournaments or events coming up that you have your eye on?
KB: The World Championships are coming up later in the year, but this year for me is a training year and I’ve never really been able to have that before. I actually have time on my side now and I can really focus on the future, I can look at the long-term game and the long-term plan, not just the short-term.
Before, I had to get ready for competitions straight away and had to perform routines that were relatively simple for me because I had no time to focus on stuff that I’m capable of. Now, it’s time to use this year wisely, to skill up, put everything into place and build a foundation for the future. That’s the main aim right now.
JOE: It’s a long way away yet, but are you thinking about the 2016 Olympics in Brazil already?
KB: Yes, definitely. The build up to that all starts as of next year, this year I want to start putting things in place for next year; with the European Championships taking place it’s a big year for me. At the 2012 European Championships I made the final and I qualified in third and my aim next year is to get myself in the best possible situation to replicate that, to replicate what I did in qualifying and hopefully get a medal. That’s my goal and I’ve been sitting down with my coaches to find out how we’re going to do that.
As a team, it’s vital that next year we go to the World Championships and we qualify as a team for the 2015 World Championships. If we do that, we have a guaranteed place at the Olympics. If that doesn’t go to plan the individual route is a lot harder but if I do all the hard work now hopefully I can maintain everything and have high enough start values to carry me through and go on to Rio.
JOE: The 2012 Olympics were obviously an amazing experience for you personally. Is it still something you reflect on or is it something you want to move on from and focus on the future?
KB: I always think about it. I always think ‘right, forever now I’m going to be known as an Olympian' and that for me is a dream come through. On the other hand, I also use the other side of it, that it didn’t go quite so well and I want to put myself into a situation where that never happens again. I would never change what happened that day or anything because I believe I’m better now, I’m stronger than I was and mentally I’m going to be ready for when that opportunity comes around again, which, fingers crossed, will happen in Rio.
The big thing about the Olympics was I didn’t know what to expect. I had competed in European and World Championships and at World Cups but the scale of everything at the Olympics was absolutely incredible. I didn’t know what it was going to be like or what to expect until that day and now I want to put everything in place so when it comes to Rio I can learn from the experience I had in London and it should hopefully help me going forward.
JOE: There was obviously a huge reaction to your performance at your Olympics. Did you find it overwhelming or did you just try and take it in your stride?
KB: I just tried to just take it in my stride but it really did hit me literally after I competed on the day of the competition. It was very surreal, it was almost like all of your birthdays rolled into one as well as being the most nervous you’re ever going to be in your entire life. It was absolutely crazy, it was like the biggest adrenaline rush along with the most fear you’ve ever experienced at the same time.
I suppose whenever you go into a nervous situation, like a job interview or when you talk to someone for the first time, there’s a bit of nervousness, but when you do those things again it’s not as bad and that’s the only way I can describe it really.
Kieran's emotional interview at the London Olympics last year
The story and my back story of my injuries and setbacks is always going to be there and it’s going to make a very good book one day but my aim now is, touch wood, that the injuries stay away and I can really try and fulfil my potential and put things in the right places and just really go for it.
That’s the key now, I had to do a bit of playing safe in 2011 and make sure I did everything I could to qualify, but now I really want to go for it, push the limits of my ability, see what my body can take and do as much as I can possibly do. I’ve got my diet in check, I’m working with Optimum Nutrition and they’re helping me with products and stuff like that and the help provided by BT is really enabling me to put myself in the best situation for the future.
JOE: You mentioned your injury history and because it’s so incredible it’s been well documented at this stage. Was it difficult to deal with at times?
KB: I think in my training I felt I was missing out on one thing and that was that I didn’t have structure to my everyday training life; I had to come in and do my routines, but I sometimes felt that if I came in and did my routines and I didn’t hit them that it was pointless.
What I felt I needed and what I do now is I go into every session, I do my warm up and my conditioning and then I do my routine sessions after that; I train twice a day. Whether the routine sessions go good or go bad I can take away from the training that I’ve laid the foundations, I’ve done the strength training and I’m making my body physically stronger and physically ready for when I go out and do the routines.
I didn’t have that before just because there was such a short space of time between competitions. This year is about working really hard and getting myself as physically strong and prepared and possible. Doing skills and gymnastics are easy; it’s the ground work, making your body strong so you have a bit of a reserve tank and if you feel tired, it doesn’t matter if you feel tired.
Normally in an everyday session I would have the strength work done whereas on a competition day where you don’t have to do the strength work, just the routines, you know it doesn’t matter if you feel tired because you’ve got it left in you, you’ve got that reserve. That’s what I felt I needed and that’s what had to change.
It obviously didn’t help that three weeks before the Olympics I had a fractured metatarsal in my foot and trying to keep that quiet and having it mulling over in my head was pretty tough but I know now and I’ve learned that I have to be as prepared as possible before I put my hand up and do the routine, I have to know that my body can take this and that’s been my main aim.
JOE: Thanks to the likes of BT and others, your financial situation has changed drastically since before the Olympics....
KB: It really makes a huge difference. I feel what has affected me is the medical side and that’s where BT have helped with that extra bit of money that I can put into paying my training fees and paying for someone to help me get my body in the right shape, whether it’s getting rid of niggles or rehabbing, there’s only so much that determination and thinking you know what to do can do for you.
You have to have people around you that know what they’re doing, that know how to rehab and know how to make you as strong as possible, whether you have an injury or whether you’re building to do something. There’s no way I would be able to be in the situation I’m in now without BT and that’s something I really want to get across, how grateful I am and how pleased I am to have them on board.
JOE: Obviously the Olympics was a huge deal but what is sometimes overlooked is your performance in 2011 when you won three World Cup medals. Would you say that was an even greater achievement than performing at the Olympics?
KB: Yeah, sometimes that has been overlooked, the three World Cup medals in 2011 and when I was ranked number 1 in the world on the floor. That’s pretty special and I’ve got it at home, the world ranking list with me at the top and that’s pretty special. Obviously, every athlete’s dream is to go to the Olympics and that’s been my dream. My dream was to be an Olympian and then to produce an Olympian and that’s my main ambition in sport.
I know everything I do is going to be about sport and gymnastics and when my competitive career ends I want to come back home and I want to really put all my knowledge into the grassroots and hopefully bring some very strong and talented gymnasts through and give back to Ireland what they’ve given to me in being able to compete and being proud to compete for Ireland and that’s what I want to do for the youngsters.
"It (The Olympics) was very surreal, it was almost like all of your birthdays rolled into one as well as being the most nervous you’re ever going to be in your entire life."
It’s nice for them to have a face to look to and to be able to put a face on gymnastics in Ireland and I’m so proud to do that. Some people might ask if it bothers me that my story is focussed on at times but it doesn’t because yes, that is my story but it gives people inspiration and hope, whether it’s sport, if a family member passes away, a financial problem or something in everyday life, they can look at that and they can take it and build upon it.
The more people say that I’ve inspired them, the more it inspires me to continue what I’m doing and to make people proud and that’s my main aim.
JOE: Finally Kieran, I can’t help but notice the London Olympics tattoo on your arm, are you going to follow it up with one for Rio in three years’ time?
KB: Definitely. I’ve got enough space left anyway!
JOE: It was a pleasure Kieran, thanks very much for your time and all the best in the future.
For information on Kieran's progress and to see him issue FIFA apologies, you can follow Kieran on Twitter @KieranBehanIRL