Newstalk Sport's Raf Diallo speaks to Ireland's triathlon hopeful about a rollercoaster ride to the Games
"I can remember lying on the hospital bed before going in for my X-ray and I’m still in my cycling kit and at that point you’re still in the form of your life… you’re sitting there in your kit and you feel like an athlete and as soon as that comes off, it’s gone and I said ‘can I sit in this kit forever?'"
Bryan Keane’s tale is one of triumph over adversity and turning 36 during the Olympics, the Cork man will be the oldest person who will start the men’s triathlon at Rio 2016.
Yet the events of the incident that left him in that hospital bed was the reason he missed the last Olympics in London. But we’ll get to that in good time because his wider story is interesting and he tells it very well..
In June, Keane and I sat down for a chat for Newstalk Sport before he belatedly makes his Olympics bow and his story is intriguing.
For those not well acquainted with triathlon, it’s an event that tests endurance and it follows the path of swimming for 1.5 kilometres, cycling for 40 and then running over a distance of 10,000 metres to the finish line.
Keane’s path, though, didn’t quite go in that order. Born in Cork, his sequence was swim, run and then cycle, with swimming beginning in 1992 aged 12 with Dolphin Swim Club in his home county.
Bryan Keane celebrates his win at the Firmus Energy City of Derry Triathlon in June with Darren Dunne (2nd) and Kieran Jackson (3rd) ©INPHO/Andrew Paton
But other interests then took hold.
“In 1996, I actually wanted to start triathlon, so I joined Leevale, a local running club and then I kind of got side-tracked where I realised I was a better runner than I was ever going to be a swimmer and as a kid I can remember Seoul ‘88 and Barcelona ‘92 and Atlanta ‘96, you remember Olympic games and ever since I was a kid, it was something that inspired you and that’s the pinnacle of sport itself,” he says.
Triathlon wasn’t on the Olympic roster though until 2000, but in the meantime, Keane’s running ability took him all the way to a bronze medal at the European Cross Country Championship in 2000 for Ireland.
But he then “fell out of love with running” and started college, taking up a First class honours degree at the National College of Art and Design in Fine Print, although there were scholarship offers from US colleges.
And that’s where the last leg of triathlon kicked in. Keane says he always had a slight interest in cycling.
“I had a summer over in San Francisco where I was living over the other side of the Bridge and I was probably cycling anywhere between 60-80km a day without realising it and next thing I knew I was 6-7 years on the bike,” he reflects, of a time where he also represented Ireland internationally in cycling events.
The next part of the progression on two wheels saw him join the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy based in Belgium.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. You look back with a bit of rose-tinted glasses where you could live in Belgium for €50 a week and I was living with other Irish guys so it was good fun. But I overtrained and put myself in a complete hole and ultimately that’s why I stopped on the bike. I just had enough of it. I was sick of it. I put the bike away and I didn’t touch it for 9 months and I was working as a photographer in Cork, I was enjoying that.”
But the lure of sport meant he would be back in action again pretty soon - and photography played an inadvertent role.
With some of his cousins having spent time in Australia, aunts that live there and a friend heading over, Keane decided to make the move to the far side of the world.
And significantly, the land Down Under was a triathlon stronghold when he made the move.
Ireland's Bryan Keane during the bike leg at the ITU World Triathlon Series ©INPHO/Photosport/Darryl Carey
“I was working photography over there but was yet to make friends. I’d had some bike friends but cycling’s… the lifestyle over there is up at 5 or 6 in the morning, eat, go for a spin, go to work, come home. I didn’t have a social group outside of that and it was just hard to make friends. In any new city it can be hard to make friends, so I joined a tri club. It was something I always wanted to do but it was 12 years later from when I first joined Leevale and said I was going to do tri. I’ve been side-tracked and competed in two other sports and now finally got that opportunity.”
All of which led him to the Bondi Running and Athletics Club where he would come into contact with a top triathlon coach in the shape of Jamie Turner. And there was an added benefit.
“All of a sudden, you went from having no friends to 200,” he says.
“They took you in and they embraced you and it didn’t matter what level you were at. It was just a really friendly group of people.”
Turner quickly spotted Keane’s potential as a triathlete after watching the Irishman beat more heralded opposition at an event and “two weeks later I was living in his house in Wollongong” he recalls.
“He showed how to be professional and what the sport required. He gave me that schooling,” says Keane, who emphasises that it was piecing together his previously disconnected skills in cycling, running and swimming into a whole package was where Turner was particularly important in his development.
Significantly Triathlon Ireland had just appointed a High Performance director called Chris Jones, who Turner knew which helped pave the way for Keane to become part of the Irish system and quickly made an impression in his early triathlon events.
He also feels that Australia, as a place with a fine pedigree in triathlon, was the perfect place for his progression: “If I’d started in Ireland, I wouldn’t have had the same exposure, the same knowledge. It wasn’t here at the time and when Chris came in that’s when it started. It was a perfect storm between meeting Jamie, giving me that opportunity and him knowing Chris.”
With triathlon on the rise in Ireland, Keane returned home in 2009 and he earned three podium finishes that summer in European Cup races as well as appearing in his first World Cup where he finished a creditable 12th.
The 2010 season promised more progress with the next Olympics just two years away. But unfortunately after a good start to the year, including more podiums and seventh in the World Sprint Championships - “my biggest result to date” up to that point according to Keane - disaster struck.
“That September 17th 2010, [I was] hit by the car and that put an abrupt full-stop on where I was at and what I was doing,” he recalls.
The accident in question occurred when he was struck by a car travelling at 40km near his home while out cycling on the Cork-Cobh road, which brings us back to the opening scene of this piece.
On the hospital bed, still in his cycling gear, he received the news that he had shattered his knee cap which required two surgeries and left him needing to learn to run again with the Olympics less than two years away.
“I was in the Olympic ranking at the time, I was a in reasonably decent spot. I was sitting in the ‘30s in the rankings. Sure, there’s a lot more racing to go - you had all of 2011 and a bit of 2012 but at that point I was in the form [of my life],” he says.
“I was in a leg brace for 14 weeks. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t cycle… it was day by day, that’s all you could do. You had to put up with it. You had to have a belief in yourself and what you were doing to get back but you don’t know if it’s definitely going to happen. It took a long time.
“I had to learn to run again in that time because the leg wasn’t functioning as it should. Even if I was ever going to get back or whether I wasn’t, I still had to have a proper functioning leg. I didn’t want to be going round with a limp or not being able to move properly.”
While he was still able to swim during his rehabilitation which helped him maintain core base fitness as well as other types of gym work, London 2012 was out of the equation.
Fortunately, good progress between then and this year meant that all of a sudden he was back in Olympic qualifying range after making his mark in the two-year cycle leading into 2016. The setbacks didn’t end there - although this time it hasn’t stopped him getting to Rio.
Ireland's Bryan Keane ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy
“I got injured last year - my Achilles flared up - and I missed four races. And when that happens, all of a sudden you go from a place where you’re in the rankings to you’re out of the ranking and you’ve got to chase it a bit more and that became a bit s***,” he said, adding that it “came down to the wire with us” at one point but he built up enough points through race events to qualify, clinching it in Yokohama.
Now with Rio on the horizon and preparations in full swing, thoughts turn to August 18th when the Olympic triathletes take to the Fort Copacabana venue that will host the event.
“The course is good, it’s a course that suits me. It’s more strength based. The run, sure it’s going to be quick - [Alistair] Brownlee ran 29 minutes off the bike and a 1,500 metre swim in London  to win the gold medal. Again, there was talk that you would need to run the same sort of speed to win a medal but I don’t think it will be as quick. It’s just the nature of that course. That suits me that it isn’t as fast,” says Keane, having been around Fort Copacabana during a test event in 2015.
From an Irish perspective, that’s what we want to hear and Keane is looking forward to finally competing at an Olympics after the testing times in the wake of the accident.
“It’s a privilege to go to the Olympic games and represent your country. It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was 10 and when you were training, you’d do commentary in your own head, pretending you’re in a race and that dream has become a reality.
“It’s been a crazy rollercoaster ride to get to that point but that’s living and that’s racing. Thankfully I’ve come out the other side from a career that one of the orthopaedic surgeons said ‘No, you’re not going to compete again’. There are guys who have had my injury who have never competed again and I didn’t want to be one of those who somebody would say ‘could have been world champ or could have gone to the Olympics… could’ve, should’ve, would’ve!’ This is what I wanted to do and I’ve set out to do it.”
And although he is the oldest person in the triathlon field in Rio, his late start in the sport makes him feel that his “triathlon age is still pretty young” and does not see age as a huge factor.
So when you’re flicking on the triathlon on your TV, keep an eye on the latest Keane from Cork who’s wearing the green of Ireland internationally.