He can remember hurtling down the hill on his cousin’s bike, moving at a nonsensical pace, the summer breeze buffeting his face.
He remembers approaching the sharp left-hand turn at the bottom, a corner that brought him onto a road that was usually deserted.
“I’d been down it hundreds of times before and not a problem,” says Keelan Kilrehill. “But it was just that one day.”
He remembers the panic when he caught sight of the car, a frozen moment of terror that left him with no time to choose his fate. Reacting on instinct, he braked, swerved, and was sling-shot over the handlebars, a 14-year-old boy turned missile, braced for impact.
That was the last thing he can recall of the crash that nearly left him paralysed.
“When I hit the ground, I was gone. I don’t remember any of it,” he says.
It was August 2015, two days before Kilrehill was due to compete at the national finals of the Community Games, but as he lay unconscious in the drain alongside the road in Dromore West, Sligo, not only was that race at risk, but his ability to walk again, never mind run.
He woke up at home, covered in blood. The driver of the car was his neighbour, who immediately recognised him and ferried him back to the house, where an ambulance was summoned.
The pain was bad, but not unbearable, so Kilrehill initially harboured hopes of still making it to Athlone two days later to compete. At the hospital in Sligo, as he awaited scans, he asked the nurses for ice packs to take down the swelling.
“I thought it was just bruising, but I was trying to convince myself.”
The next day he was transferred to Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, where the doctors gave him the full rundown of the damage.
“It was three broken vertebrae in my back, then a fracture in my C1 vertebra in my neck,” he says.
He was kept in Crumlin for a week, during which surgeons inserted a long bar into his back, with six screws drilled into his spine to hold it in place. As bad as the damage was, Kilrehill became acutely aware of how lucky he’d been.
“That bone in my neck that I fractured: If that was broken I’d have been paralysed,” he says. “It was just fractured and took six weeks to heal, but if it was broken…”
That eventuality doesn’t really bear thinking about, so Kilrehill prefers not to.
Incredibly, he walked out of hospital unassisted a week later, the only sign of his injuries the neck brace he would wear for six weeks. “It was bad pain for two or three weeks, but after that I was able to walk around grand,” he says. “You wouldn’t even notice it.”
Doctors told him to stay at home for six weeks, but after four Kilrehill was bored, so rocked back into class at Coláiste Iascaigh with a hell of a tale to tell about his summer adventures.
In the years before, he’d been a keen Gaelic footballer, hurler and soccer player, but early in 2015 he had demoted these below running, where his talent was shining brightest. After his accident, he wasn’t allowed near a Gaelic pitch for six months — not with four healing vertebrae in his back — but after three months he was allowed to resume running.
The following summer, he returned to the Community Games finals to clear up some unfinished business – his parents Ann and Brendan and sisters Shauna and Lisa watching proudly as he struck gold in the 7km event.
Even today, his parents continue to travel the length and breadth of the country to attend all his races. As for the accident, they never laid a trace of blame at the youngster’s door.
“They definitely weren’t angry, they were just happy I was walking, especially mum She’d be a worrier at the best of times,” says Kilrehill.
A year after the accident, he returned to Crumlin to have the bar in his back removed. He keeps it in a press at home as a memento of his unluckiest — yet luckiest — day.
Today, there are scant signs of what was once a wreckage.
“I’ve a few knocks in my back, but it doesn’t bother me too much,” he says.
From schools internationals to Celtic Games, Kilrehill has represented Ireland four times in recent years, a number that looks set to grow as his talent blooms under the guidance of coach Philip Finnerty at Moy Valley AC.
In recent weeks, he upset the odds to finish third in the senior boys’ race at the All-Ireland Schools Cross Country Championships. Taking major scalps in a quagmire of a course in Carriganore, Kilrehill came home behind Efrem Gidey and Seán O’Leary.
“I didn’t expect to be on the podium, because there were a few quality lads in it,” he says. “I was delighted the conditions were like that; it suited me.”
Now in his fifth year at Coláiste Iascaigh, the 18-year-old will likely have a number of options when he graduates next year, including an athletics scholarship in the US.
“I’m still trying to think of where to go, but America is definitely an option,” he says.
In the summer, he hopes to hack down his personal bests over 1,500m and 5,000m and win a medal at the All-Ireland Schools Championships in the latter distance, then hopefully take his talent to an even greater stage next December by competing at the European Cross Country Championships in the Netherlands.
His ultimate goal? That’s simple, says the kid who crashed down the hill but is on the way up again: “As high as you can go.”
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