When twelve-year-old Matthew Behan wandered down to his local athletics club for the first time, he probably did not expect it to alter his life so significantly.
Still only 19, Behan’s rapid rise to prominence on the Irish hurdling scene has been striking. Having smashed the 110 metres national junior record with a time of 13.78 seconds, expectations are high for the Dubliner aiming to follow in the footsteps of Olympic hero Thomas Barr.
Having shown promise at a number of sports as a child, including Gaelic and football, it emerged that Behan was a particularly promising swimmer. However, it was not long before he discovered a sport which was much more enticing to him.
“I was quite a good swimmer to be fair, but I absolutely dreaded swimming.”
“When I was twelve though, I was invited to a trial at Crusaders Athletics Club. I was better than the other kids and had a particular knack for hurdling. It just took off from there really.”
Behan quickly rose through the ranks as the national junior champion. Ranking as the 12th best junior in Europe for 110 metres and being the first Irish junior to run this distance in under 14 seconds highlighted the massive potential of this young athlete. The transition from junior to senior level, however, was a difficult one.
At junior level, the hurdles are three feet and three inches, but at senior level they’re half a foot taller (3’9”). “That’s a very big difference, so it has taken a while to adjust.”
A second year student of Sports Science and Health in DCU, Behan is absolutely focused and almost obsessive when speaking of his personal best performances and times records which he is looking to break.
“At first my times weren’t super. I was consistently getting around 14.4 seconds, which was frustrating.”
“Although at the end of the season I travelled to England and recorded a time of 14.18 seconds, so that was massively encouraging.”
“The aim for this coming season is to qualify for the European U-23 games and the World Student games. 13.68 seconds is the target. If I can achieve that I’d have a good chance of competing for a medal.”
Having considered the possibility of attending college in America, Behan finally opted for DCU.
“I had thought about going abroad, but at the end of the day I’m a home bird. I love my setup here, especially with my coach Maria Hetherington, who puts everything together for me.”
“You hear all these horror stories about athletes going abroad and burning out within months. You could be a big fish in a small pond over here, and quite the opposite in America.”
“There’s great competition and hurdle talent in Ireland and it suits me better to be in familiar surroundings.”
Behan speaks in glowing terms of the support he receives from Athletics Ireland and DCU.
“We’re given absolutely ample support and you couldn’t really ask for more. We’re regularly made do blood tests to ensure that we’re healthy. Enda Fitzpatrick, the director of DCU Athletics Academy, really couldn’t be any more helpful.”
Having trained last year with DCU, Behan now trains solely with Athletics Ireland. Athletics Ireland would rather Behan’s training was more specifically based around hurdling and as such favour him training under their stewardship.
A day in the life of Matthew Behan is rather more hectic than that of your typical DCU student. Mondays and Fridays are reserved for gym work and strength and conditioning training with former Irish hurdler Martina McCarthy. Tuesdays and Thursdays see him take to the track with Crusaders AC in Irishtown Stadium.
Fitting in college lectures with this busy schedule requires discipline, but when your aspirations are as lofty as Behan’s, discipline is essential.
“I suppose my big goal is to get to Tokyo 2020. I never tried to kid myself by believing that Rio was a realistic target. I don’t want to just go there and be making up the numbers though. The aim is to go there and be competitive.”
“Obviously being a professional sportsperson would be a massive incentive too.”
Seeing fellow hurdler Thomas Barr achieve fourth place in the 400 metres hurdles at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro only served to further whet his appetite.
“I’d be pals enough with Thomas and to see what he achieved this summer was inspiring. To see the Irish out there mixing it up was just brilliant.”
When he’s not breaking national junior records or striving for perfection in his quest for an Olympic appearance, Behan says he likes to play FIFA, hang out with his friends and family, and read about sport. You get the sense, however, when talking to Behan that Tokyo is always in the back of his mind.
Remember the name. He very well may be the next Thomas Barr.