81: What if You Were Told You Can Never Walk Again – Feat. Kieran Behan

Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving, we get stronger and more resilient. – Steve Maraboli

Hi, and welcome back to the star player academy show, episode 81.

This is Marilyn Wo, I help serious athletes like you get your mind back in the game.

As serious and committed athletes like you, it’s natural that at times you will be overly hard on yourselves. You are hard on your results, your training processes, you want to keep working on yourself to get better all the time. Losing is not the option, but truth is, we lose all the time and ironically, it’s from losing that we win.

When I mean losing and winning, it does not mean just the colour of the medal, but how you end up receiving that prize, because for me as an athlete, it’s getting through the challenging obstacles to achieve my goals that matter.

You wouldn’t want to win a junior team and feel successful about it, nor would you want to win someone on an unfair condition. That said, you wouldn’t want to invite unnecessary injury or pain into your life to jeopardise your journey towards your goals. But what if these circumstances present themselves to you out of nowhere?

I’m sure there are days you find yourself not in the best of health to be at practice or perform your best. You may be able to score a goal from a hundred yards when suddenly you suffer from a hamstring injury. This injury is so painful, not only you aren’t able to score that far anymore, you also aren’t able to walk without crutches.

I totally understand that, because I’ve injured my shoulder too and you know Canoe Polo requires a lot of short burst rowing and ball throwing, I’ve suffered from bouts of sharp pains on my rotator cuff time after time trying to throw a ball as hard as I could. When the pain comes, my throws and shots do not turn out the way I wanted them to be.

It’s so frustrating, sometimes, you feel like giving up.

I take these as challenges because these are situations that will either fuel you to continue or quit your journey as an athlete. Even if you carry on being in the sport you love, these issues may pose as distractions in your daily life and affect your performance.

Hope I make sense.

Point is, there are many athletes out there who became champions many times, but what this show is about is to prepare you to meet and cope with the challenges you face now and ahead while finding your way to success. It’s not about the point of getting out of the dark, it’s about how to get through the dark and progressing towards where there is light, because most of the time, it’s because of the dark that the champion in you will emerge to bring you to light.

Irish Olympian Kieran Behan is one of those who never let his body take over what he knows he can do. Not even when the doctors told him he’d never walk again. In summary, that was how he got to where he wanted to be. It has always been his dream to be an Olympic gymnast someday.

Who would have imagined that a series of unfortunate events awaited him to try and stop him in his tracks.

Behan was already in gymnastics when he was 8 and when he was 10, he found a tumour growing up till the size of a golf ball on his left leg. Although a blessing that it was noncancerous, it had to be removed, and the surgery procedure caused a nerve damage that left Behan affected his feeling in his left foot. At that time, he was also suffering from excruciating pain, so bad that he could not walk and any slight brush against his leg would cause him to scream really bad.

To make things worse, there were students in his school who were not very kind to him. Behan told the press that “They’d say, ‘Oh look at the cripple,’ and that was so hard for me 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. “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.”

So the pain is not just physical but emotional and attacking his self-identity at the same time.

He also said: “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.’ And look at me now, an Olympian. They said it was impossible, but I did it.”

When the doctors were prepping him to sit in a wheelchair for life, he proved everyone wrong. Within 15 months, Behan was not only walking, he went back to gymnastics.

So he not only suffered pain in his leg, he was told he will never walk again and got taunted by kids in school. Yet he dealt with these and got back up to stick to his promise with himself.

As if these weren’t bad enough, eight months after getting back to gymnastics, he met with a freak accident where he hit the back of his head on the metal horizontal bar during his usual training session.

This accident no only caused a traumatic brain injury, it also caused Behan to black out so many times because it made him lose his balance with even a bit of movement. It was so bad, once again his daily life was affected. A simple turning of his head was tough, feeding himself and walking without falling was also became a challenge.

It was not only an emotional time for him, but also for his mom who decided to quit her job to take care of him. She said, “He kept telling the doctors, ‘I can walk — tell them, Mom, that I can walk,’ and my heart was breaking,” she said. “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.’ ”

Talk about grit, this boy’s love for the sport led him to go through rounds of physical therapy. He couldn’t wait to recover and get back to gymnastics again. In two years after all that has happened, Behan made it through, got back his hand-eye coordination and started walking normally again.

Before you think this is the end of all that pain, there were more to come. After getting back to training, he broke his arm, fractured his wrist and tore his ligament in his right knee. These injuries required him to go through six months of rehabilitation. Still he pulled through and kept working on what he loved to do.

Then in 2010, just before his first senior debut at the European Championships, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his other knee.

I really wonder how many injuries can he endure to still carry on with this usual training and stay at the peak of his form.

Then in 2011, he finally won three world cup medals, including Ireland’s first world cup gold medal.

When asked about why and how he was so resilient in what he wanted to do, he said, “I think it’s probably just in my blood,” he said. “I was just born to do this.”

With Behan’s classic example, I’m not here to say that you have to go through what he has been through to be able to perform better or to enjoy the sport you have passion in.

But I’m sure there are times you suffer from pains in your body that you just cannot bear, that you may have to stop what you are doing. That’s really okay.

Behan took breaks too, 6 months, 2 years, but he never leave his fate in the hands of anyone. Yes we need to seek professional help and take advice from doctors, but your passion should be above what you cannot do. The doctors know their work, but only you can control your mind and body.

The takeaway in today’s lesson is clear.
Lesson Number 1: Believe in yourself, this cannot be taken out of the equation of success. You’ve heard Behan’s story, he believed he can walk, his mom believed in him, there’s no two way about his. If you don’t believe, you are leaving your fate to hope. You need to figure a way out to put things in your own control. Let me put it this way, the opposite of believing in yourself is self-doubt. But how do you start to believe in yourself when the pain is excruciating, when all the odds are against you, and like for Behan, even the doctors insisted that he couldn’t walk anymore. As long as you know this, you are having a good enough self-aware to move on to the next step. So first, give yourself some space, nobody is to talk to you at this time, then in your mind, focus on what is the worst that can happen to you if you just think that your pain will win over you anyway. Like for Behan, the worst is, he will never get to walk again. He still lives on, but what’s the flip side of that? He isn’t able to do what he loved to do, because if he cannot walk, he cannot be the kind of gymnast that he dreamed himself to be. Then look over to the other spectrum, what if he can walk? What if you can overcome this pain? Now this is when the magic happens, when you tell yourself that that’s where you want to go, then, overcoming this pain becomes possible for you, that’s all you need to know. It’s all or nothing, always remember that. Believing is all or nothing. It’s sticking to what you think is better for yourself. For Behan, not walking is not better for him. His better option is walking so that he can continue being a gymnast. Now StarPlayer, this is how you believe in yourself. Then as you keep moving on and progressing, this believe in yourself grows stronger because as you improve in your condition, you see for yourself that what you are doing helps, and that will help you to keep on moving towards your goals.

Lesson Number 2: Focus on what you can do, not what you cannot do. It’s so easy to just think of what we can’t do. Why is that so? It’s because, it’s harder to try to do something and fail at it. The situation with Behan is very obvious to us, because he managed to get through it and we got to see sort of the “happy ending”. But I’m sure, if anyone else was in his situation, their thought process would be, “it’s really very painful”, or “I should not try to do anything other than what the doctors say because if I don’t listen, I may get more injured and doctors may be proven right”. So if there are struggles between your pain, worries and your passion, always picture in your mind that ultimate dream or passion you always have. Then work backwards with steps to reach it.

Like for Behan, he worked with his physical therapist to make sure physically he can recover to his normal form rather than hide himself in his room all day and not see anyone. He was doing all that for a purpose, he had a dream, a passion, something he wants to work for, but in order to reach that, he had to take steps. First get himself up, make sure he can walk normally first, then back to training ground and then to his usual training routine.

So StarPlayers, I hope the story of Kieran Behan not only inspired you but gave you the actionable steps to keep you moving towards your dreams stronger than ever before. I’ve linked up a video of him in the show notes, do look that up if you are curious to see his performance.

Now back to you, what are you struggling right now? I want to hear it, go to starplayeracademy.com/ask, and leave your answers to the questions there and I will respond to you as quickly as I can.

With that, we have come to the end of today’s episode.

Before you go, let me leave you a quote by Steve Maraboli, he said, “Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving, we get stronger and more resilient.”

Thank you all for joining me today. And see you tomorrow.

I look forward to see you become a StarPlayer.

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