‘I thought I’d never walk again but now I’m a fighter’

Derry man Fergal Meenan.
Derry man Fergal Meenan.

Fergal Meenan’s two year-old daughter, Chloe, asks her daddy to take her to the park. It’s a Thursday and it’s rush hour in downtown Manhattan.

“Becoming a father has changed my life forever - Chloe is just the centre of my universe. I’m from Kylemore and have kept my Derry accent but Chloe’s accent is as New York as they come,” he laughs.

Fergal will celebrate his 33rd birthday next month and the former Model Integrated Primary School pupil has been living in New York for the last 13 years.

In just over ten years spent living in the ‘Big Apple’ Fergal carved a career out for himself in the local construction industry, got married and became a father but on February 12, 2009 his life came crashing in around him when he had a horrific accident on a building site.

“Everything was going really well - I had plenty of work and then four years ago I fell from scaffolding on a building site on Second Avenue in Manhattan.”

As he made his way across the scaffolding, a plank of wood snapped sending Fergal hurtling towards the floor below.

Fergal landed on a pile of bricks and rubble and sustained a horrific injuries to his right foot, leg and back.

“My heel bone had twisted almost 360 degrees and was poking out the side of my foot - some of the guys I was working with that day started to throw up because my injuries were so bad. I can’t convey to you the pain I was in - I honestly thought because of the injury to my leg and back I might never walk again,” he said honestly.

Minutes after the accident an ambulance arrived at the building site and because the incident happened between the fourth and third floors a crane had to be brought in to lift Fergal down to safety.

The ambulance rushed Fergal to Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and in the space of a few seconds the Derry man’s life was changed forever.

Sine the accident Fergal has had to endure nine separate operations; three back operations, three surgeries on his left knee and three operations on his right foot.

Seven screws and one metal plate in Fergal’s right foot help him to walk and soon after the accident he had 90 per cent of the cartilage in his left knee removed.

“I am a million times better now but I will have to take painkillers for the rest of my life. I took a few painkillers for my back just before I answered the phone to you.

“My last operation was last September and it was on my back - I have felt stronger every day since then,” he said.

A few months previous to the accident Fergal asked his girlfriend Shannon to marry him. Shannon said yes and one month after his shocking mishap, using crutches, he made his way down the aisle and he and Shannon were married.

“I didn’t want the accident to get in the way of our plans - it was painful that day but marrying Shannon was all I wanted to do,” he said.

Doctors told Fergal to expect the road to recovery to be long and paved with obstacle after obstacle but the Derry man refused to let his injuries beat him.

“The doctors told me I would probably never walk the way I did before the accident and they also told me that I would probably have a limp for the rest of my life.

“I had a great physiotherapist who helped me to get back on track and I always told myself that if I ever got back on my feet again I was going to get myself fit and become a fighter.”

Chloe was born in the middle of Fergal’s recovery and as a stay at home dad he looked after his daughter every day as Shannon went to work in a bar in Wall Street.

“Myself and Shannon only had one wage coming into the house and we now had a daughter to support and look after.

“I wasn’t able to work for the last four years and whilst I was in a lot of physical pain it affected me mentally too - I would have suffered from depression but when Chloe came along everything started to change.

“Chloe and Shannon are the best things to ever happen to me. I just love being a dad to Chloe - I love everything about her - her wee New York accent always makes me laugh,” he said happily.

Fergal, who left Derry for New York when he was 20 years-old, always kept himself in good shape. Even before his accident he would have gone to a local gym but for the duration of his recovery he was unable to do any physical activity.

“After the last surgery on my back last September I started to feel strong again so I joined a local gym here in Queen’s called Xtreme Couture Gym. Randy Couture of Mixed Martial Arts (M.M.A.) fame is an affiliate of the gym - I love going there it’s helped to get back to where I was before,” he said.

For the best part of seven months Fergal attended the gym religiously. He became skilled in the art of Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, Muay Thai and Kickboxing.

Two weeks ago, Fergal and a handful of his team-mates from Xtreme Couture in Queen’s entered the North American Grappling Association (NAGA) World Championships in Morristown in New Jersey.

Remarkably, Fergal was crowned Masters NO-GI Novice Middle Weight champion. It was his first ever time competing and he saw off the challenge of three other fighters to win the gold medal and he described it as one of the most emotional days of his life.

“I’d been through so much. The accident and the injury had changed my life. Then I got married and then Chloe was born - it was a real rollercoaster ride but when I won the gold medal at the NAGA World Championships a few weeks ago I was just so happy - words can’t explain how I felt.”

If partaking in punishing and physically demanding sports like MMA, Muay Thai and winning gold at the NAGA World Championships wasn’t enough to impress you then Fergal has even found time to return to work.

“I was actually working on a building site three blocks away from where the accident happened this morning,” he said.

“There’s nothing else for it. I have a wife and a child - I have a family to support so I have no choice but to get out on to the building sites again.

“The last four years have changed my life for the better. Marrying Shannon and becoming a dad are the two best things I have ever done but I am so proud of myself for going from lying in a heap with a busted foot, leg and back to competing at events like the NAGA World Championships

“I am also training to become a certified martial arts instructor and it would be my ambition to enter into the full MMA scene. That’s going to take a lot of work but I am determined. The future is looking good again. I thought I’d never walk again

“I try to get home to Derry as much as I can. My parents, Fergal and Marion still live in Kylemore and I brought Shannon back to Derry to meet her Derry family - but I don’t think there’s any danger of her swapping her New York accent for a Derry twang,” he laughed.