Chalk it up to hard work: What's next for Ireland's gymnasts after making history in Rio

Newstalk.com speaks to Gymnastics Ireland CEO Ciaran Gallagher about the state of the sport in Ireland

Ellis O'Reilly

Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

In the early hours of Sunday morning, the culmination of four years hard work came to an end in the most heartbreaking of circumstances.

Kieran Behan, hands bloodied and shredded from wooden bars, prepared for the floor. This part of the event is arguably his strongest asset and good performances leading up to this point will have given him confidence of securing a final place berth.

Sadly, his first tumble ended in disappointment as he dislocated his left knee. But instead of packing in his routine and receiving medical attention, one can only assume that he cast his mind back on the last four years' work.

The long days, early starts in the gym and the grueling shifts on the building sites all in the hopes of funding his Olympic dream. The 27-year-old has spoken openly about his struggles with depression and recovering from serious injuries which kept him sidelined after the London 2012 Olympic Games.

So when he was shaken from the injury, he didn't just get back up after that first tumble.

He continued. He finished.

Kieran Behan produced a hugely admirable display last night and can return from Rio with the utmost pride in his efforts.

On Sunday afternoon, 18-year-old Ellis O'Reilly also produced a sterling performance at her first Olympic Games and can walk away with with immense pride. Her landing on the beam saw her come down heavily on her head, but she picked herself up and made her way off stage. The emotion was evident. They have given everything to make it to Brazil and whatever about their performances, no one can take their moment in the spotlight away from them. 

Their performances will no doubt capture the imagination of the Irish public and regardless of the pair coming home without any medals, they have done huge work in building the sport in Ireland. 

Their qualification, according to Gymnastics Ireland CEO Ciaran Gallagher, was the product of years of hard work and planning.

"It was a huge achievement for the organisation," he tells Newstalk.com. "We started planning this target of one female and one male qualifier six years ago. Things like this, when it hits the media, appear to be fly by night results when the reality, in a sport which is quite technical, is that they have to be strategically planned.

"It was quite a drawn out qualification process over a couple of years. But even prior to that qualification process, there’s our performance and technical department. We need to identify athletes who have potential and make sure that they’re put in the right competitions, and that in their preparation make sure that they are developed as part of a team to ensure they’re supported.

"Once they get to the point of reaching the qualification route, we have to make sure that the gymnasts are capable of making the targeted scores to qualify. It took a lot of planning, it was huge for us."

The organisation will now work with Sport Ireland as one of 22 high-performance sports in country as they move into their new base of operations in Blanchardstown.

Noting that work for this Games began back in 2008, Gallagher stated that the wheels were already in motion for future tournaments. 

"We’ve already selected our 2020 and 2024 Olympic start squads and they’re working away silently in the background. We’ve been able to put more money into funding the gymnasts and being able to travel around the world where they can compete at the right places at the right times.

"The final piece of the jigsaw from our perspective comes in at the end of this year. All these things are in place, we’ve got good people and good systems. Now we’ve got our new national gymnastics facility as part of the National Indoor Arena in Blanchardstown. That’ll open it’s doors on the sports campus at the end of this year.

"This next Olympic cycle for us is going to be a huge step up."

The organisation has gone to some lengths to try break stigmas around the sport and bring it to a new generation, where both male and female competitors are involved in helping to build the future of gymnastics in Ireland.

"It’s been a great draw having Kieran because he’s such an excellent poster-boy for the sport. We’ve got a very active men’s programme, our first European medal in an Olympic discipline came from 15-year-old Rhys McClenaghan, who’s born and bred here in Bangor.

"Our sport in Ireland at the moment is 70% female and 30% male. That stat is slightly out of kilter with global gymnastics which is about 60-40. Cut to countries like Germany where the national gymnastics federation is the next biggest sport federation next to football. The men’s programme and the number of boys involved in the sport is actually pipping the women at the minute.

"Our priority is to develop new programmes and initiatives over the next number of years to attract more male participants and more adult participants because we are a lifelong sport.

"That’s something that people have a kind have an old style perception that gymnastics as a sport that once you hit your teens that’s it. In reality men can go all the way through to their 30s and 40s. The sport is transformed and that’s something that we’re looking to develop once Rio is gone. It’s crazy how you work so hard for four years and then in two weeks it’s on to the next Games. Post Rio that’s what we’re looking towards in 2020."

These systems were crucial in identifying Ellis O'Reilly and putting her into a position where she could chase qualification for the Games.

Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

"There were a group of five gymnasts who were identified that were really any age for the 2013 World Championships. Ellis was one of these, she had just recently made contact with Gymnastics Ireland to investigate her eligibility to compete for us through citizenship.

"Ellis was in a squad of about five other girls who had gone through our national programme in order to compete at international events. All these girls were at European Championships, European Games, World Cups and World Championships for the years following (2013, '14 and '15).

"Just like Kieran being surrounded by a team, there were a couple of girls in that scenario that would have had potential, but as you go through the process the strongest team members up their game. That’s something Kieran and Ellis have clearly done over the last couple of years to achieve selection."

Ellis O'Reilly became the first female gymnast to represent Ireland at the Olympic Games

The systems that have helped to find such talent in Ireland have certainly paid dividends and look set to do so in the coming years.

"We’re entirely confident about what we’ve put in place. We have the right people driving it and we’ve got the right mentality. We’re now working with Sport Ireland in the national gymnastics centre and we have this flagship base that will be just as good as any other centre in the world and this will help embed a fantastic programme much like the boxers have been able to do.

So what does Gallagher say to those who are interested in becoming involved in gymnastics in Ireland?

"I myself was a gymnast. As a six-year-old I was jumping out of trees and I loved the feeling of flying. Kids love to play, swing, jump and run. Our sport encapsulates all of those things.

"The programmes that we have in Ireland are more than just aimed at the competitive end of things. There is something for everybody, even the Cirque du Soleil performance disciplines of our sport.

Some of the kids involved have the eye of the tiger; they see the Olympic Games from a younger age and those are the kids who will really push hard to go that route. Other kids will have a talent and an interest in being involved in the sport, but more on a recreational basis.

"There are a lot of clubs springing up and I would just encourage parents that if they did have a child who has an interest or wants to get involved in the sport to drop into their local gymnastics club. It tends to be a very good thing for the kids whether they choose to go the full distance or no."

With an eye to the future, the sport has made some major strides in Ireland in recent years,  but this is just the start of the road, according to Gallagher.

Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie 

"It would be our target to maintain our qualification of one male and one female athlete, and then we would look to improve on international results. In particular, we want to bring through our junior gymnasts who have been working away after being identified over the last six years.

"I think you’re going to start to see that this is just the start for us and Ellis being the first female [to represent Ireland at the Olympics in gymnastics] has done to our sport what Kieran Behan did in 2012.

"Young girls watching from home and thinking that it is possible, that it is achievable. The standard for our starting squad for 2020 and 2024 is excellent, up there with any other country."