Like so many other 10-year-old boys, Kieran Behan went into surgery for a small tumor discovered on his leg.
It was a routine surgery, performed thousands of times across the United Kingdom. Cut out the growth. Stitch up the wound. Today, of course, was to be no different.
Except it was.
As the surgeon cut around the edge of the tumor with a sharp scalpel to remove it, his hand slipped — slicing through the nerves in his leg, causing catastrophic damage. He was left wheelchair bound. The agony from his damaged nerves caused him overwhelming waves of pain.
The doctors told him he would never walk again. His psychiatrist told him to accept the worst.
His young days of gymnastics were over.
His friends and family tried to level with him by telling him “he could kiss his dream of competing goodbye.”
“But that just drove me on; I wanted to prove them wrong. They were saying it was over but I wasn’t having it.”
After 15 months of relentless effort to re-train his leg, Kieran finally returned to Tolworth Gymnastics Club, his home gym in southwest London to get back in shape for the run of his life.
His promising career was back on track. Kieran knew how this story would go. He had suffered a traumatic injury, recovered against all odds, and was now destined for world-class gymnastics feats, possibly even the Olympics.
It was an impossibly inspiring story.
A story Kieran was ready to write and prove everyone else wrong.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
One training day, as he was working through his usual high bar routine like he had thousands of times before, he made one wrong move.
His hand slipped. He smashed the back of his skull on the bar and crumpled to the ground. Unconscious. And unresponsive.
His dad raced him into the emergency room where the doctors discovered extensive damage to his brain and his inner ear.
He was back in the wheelchair.
And faced with new problems.
In an instant, he went from spinning impossibly fast off the vault, powerfully holding positions midair on the rings, and tumbling gracefully through the air in his floor routine–his best event– to relearning how to sit up straight.
For three years, he would work on human skills most take for granted — trying to just re-learn the basics. Like walking.
For three years, his parents would encourage him, telling him “he could do it”, then run out of the room to sob over the state of their son.
For three years, he struggled to remain conscious, passing out thousands of times from the brain damage caused by his fall.
After a year, he returned to school.
Only to face relentless teasing over his disabilities as he struggled to get around with a cane.
He spent countless hours in his gymnastics training center trying to catch a ball rebounding off the wall to relearn hand-eye coordination, while his teammates tumbled, twisted, and flew through the air around him.
Painfully slowly but surely, he began to relearn the sport he had fallen in love with so many years before.
By 2009, he was back in full-swing, gunning after the 2010 European Championships.
And again tragedy would strike. He blew his right ACL in a training exercise. And then 6 weeks before his biggest competition, he ruptured his other ACL. All of his work to come back to the sport he loved was wasted.
Nothing had worked in his favor. He wanted to quit.
He even contemplated suicide.
Instead, he did what he always had done in other situations like this. He pushed through.
And in 2011, he pushed hard enough to compete in the Challenge World Cup Series.
In September, he won bronze in Slovenia for his floor routine.
In October, he took silver in Croatia. Same event.
In November, he won gold–Ireland’s first–in the Czech Republic. Same event.
But those medals were not without a cost.
Since Kieran wasn’t officially sponsored, he had to figure out his own way to get to these events. He, his family, and his friends did whatever they could: bake sales, personal donations, anything to get him around the globe.
His hard work didn’t go unnoticed. The Irish Sports Council gave him a €20,000 grant to fund his quest for Olympic gold at the 2012 London games.
But that money couldn’t stop him from twice slipping during his floor routine, the event he thought was rock solid. He had disqualified himself from the finals.
“I was in no man’s land, and I was lonely not knowing where my career was going,” Kieran Behan would remark, looking back at the event.
His meager support forced him to work construction with his dad.
And since that wasn’t enough, he coached the younger kids and cleaned the gym each morning so he could spend another 35 hours a week in the gym perfecting his dream.
All that sweat paid off in 2016 when he made it to the Rio Olympics.
This was his moment. It had slipped away in 2012 when he fell twice on the mat — and he wasn’t about to let it slip away again this time.
Halfway through the qualifying round to make it to the finals, he was in good position. His dream was finally starting to become a reality.
But it all came down to the floor routine, his strongest discipline.
If he could nail this, he’d be in the finals and one step closer to Olympic gold. He’d need to score higher on this than in any previous round.
He started the routine the same as he had a thousand other times in practice. Hands raised, outstretched in a “Y” like every other gymnast. He stepped with the left leg that had given him so much trouble, then started racing diagonally across the floor before bounding into the air, rotating at an inhuman speed, quickly landing, somersaulting again, leaping once more into the air, rotating and sticking the landing. It was flawless.
Except for his left knee. This time, he blew his meniscus, the soft lubricant between the shin and thigh bones.
But there was one problem.
He still had the rest of his floor routine to complete. He had busted his knee on the first move of his strongest routine.
“As soon as my feet touched the ground on that first tumble and the knee went, I just knew that it was about survival and just getting through the rest of the routine,” Kieran thought.
He twisted, tumbled, and flipped his way through the routine, adrenaline helping him the rest of the way through.
But his coach had to help him off the mat.
He was disqualified. Again.
Sent home without a medal or even a spot in the finals.
When asked about his future after Rio, he opined, “I don’t know anyone that’s had the journey I’ve had.”
His story is still being written. Why?
Because Kieran refuses to quit.
That same spirit pulled him back into the gym where he smashed his head earlier. That same tenacity pulled him back from the edge of suicide. That same raw grit carried him through his final routine and continues to push him onward today.
He simply refuses to quit.
Gritting through the pain because he knows the long-term pain of quitting is far worse than the short-term pain of pushing through his recovery.
His “workaholism” and “perfectionism” — traits most people write-off as faults, flaws, and failure — drove him through the pain and agony to the Olympics. Twice.
There’s a saying among elite runners: “If it doesn’t suck, you’re not doing it right.”
Just because it’s hurting doesn’t mean it’s the wrong move.
It’s easy to make the easy choices. But easy choices just leave you fat, broke, and lonely.
Life will kick you down mercilessly if you let it.
You don’t have to enjoy the pain to enjoy the rewards–but you do have to endure it.
You might have to cry, bleed, and fight your way through the darkness, but your mission is worth it.
It might not be Olympic glory, but it’s just as valuable.
Suffering leads to success. Fight on.