5th March, 2007. It was just another Monday morning for Kildare man Patrick Monahan but in the blink of an eye, his life would change forever.
“I was driving too fast going to work on a Monday morning, not recklessly but a bit too fast,” Monahan tells Pundit Arena.
“I lost control of the car and flipped into the ditch.”
This is a story which Monahan has told many times before throughout his journey to becoming an Irish Paralympian and for the latest recollection, he describes it slowly and carefully with vivid detail.
“A local guy came on the scene and tried to keep me conscious. It seemed an age waiting on the emergency services to arrive, it probably took half an hour but in that time, I’d seen the blow and I was basically smashed against the side door of the car.
“I hadn’t tried to move, I was in shock, like. I wasn’t even in that much pain even though I should have been. And then I found out, the emergency services asked could I move away from the door to try and take me out of the car and I realised my leg was caught in the steering wheel and I was like, ‘I can’t move’.”
A terrifying few hours followed as Monahan was first taken to Naas hospital for tests and then to the Mater hospital in Dublin where he underwent surgery. With an upset family around him, a brief conversation with the surgeon provided the first indication that his life may never be the same again.
“[I was] taken to Naas hospital, bit of a traumatic experience getting different tests done. Family and friends were upset. I was up for surgery that night up in the Mater and I remember before going into the theatre, just asking the surgeon would I walk again. She said, ‘you have a chance’.
“I hadn’t snapped my spinal cord but it had been stretched and moved out of place. One of the bones I broke just smashed, so fragments of the bone had gone onto the spinal cord. In the weeks after that, I learned the extent of the injuries.”
Monahan comes from strong GAA stock. His grandfather played for Kildare and his father refereed the All-Ireland football final between Kerry and Tyrone in 2005. The Caragh native was a talented Gaelic footballer himself, having played senior football since he was 17 with his last match coming just two days before his accident.
The next few weeks would lead to the realisation that Gaelic football, a sport in which his whole life was so heavily ingrained, would be no more.
“In the first few weeks of the Mater when I was bed bound, you have all day for things to play on your mind. Paralysis long term never really crossed my mind. Maybe I was just too optimistic but I presume that I was going to make a full recovery and be back on my feet.
“But I remember being told, when a specialist came in from the NRH [National Rehabilitation Hospital] out in Dun Laoghaire, that I’d be going out there and learning how to be independent again. The wheelchair, that was…”
Monahan pauses as he recalls this significant moment which heralded in a new chapter in his life.
“Being put in the wheelchair for the first time, that was very traumatic because I knew getting into it for the first time, this could be my new environment going forward.”
And so it proved to be but the then 21-year-old showed tremendous determination not to allow this life-changing event to inhibit his passion for competitive sport.
Naturally, the first couple of years were difficult. For a young man who was so outgoing and where sport played a huge role in his life, learning to cope and thrive in a new environment from the confines of a wheelchair was going to take some time.
“I probably struggled with my image in public for the first couple of years. It just got better. Now it’s normal like. The last few years, I don’t even realise that I have the disability which sounds strange. It’s just the way it is for me now. This is my normal now.”
In the initial few years after Monahan’s accident, as far as he was concerned, there was a firm belief that nothing would replace the joy and happiness he got from playing competitive Gaelic football.
He was offered a chance to play basketball but he had little interest. It was in 2012, however, five years after his accident, that the spark was reignited to pursue sport once again.
Watching British wheelchair racing athlete David Weir win an incredible four gold medals at the 2012 London Paralympic Games proved to be that spark. Monahan was captivated.
This also came at a time in his life where he felt something was “missing”. He had his network of friends, a social life, a good job but deep down, that desire to push himself to his limits, to test himself to the limit both physically and mentally, emerged once again.
It never goes away.
“You’re offered basketball but I wasn’t into basketball so I’m not going to start playing basketball now. Then I seen, 2012, the Paralympics. It had been in my mind. Around 2012, I was going out at the weekends, I had a good job and that but there was something missing.”
The motivation to take up sport also came from the impact of his family. In those years after the accident, their love and support was crucial in helping Monahan get to grips with his new life and environment. Nothing would make them happier to see Monahan enjoying sport again.
“The way I looked at my accident, I didn’t intentionally set out that morning to crash the car, it was a selfish act. I didn’t realise it until I seen it in the rehab, the effects it has on families and friends. It probably affects them more nearly than me because they want to help you but there’s nothing they can really do. I’m there trying to regain my independence and they have to get back on with their lives, picking up the pieces as well whether it’s work, college or school. I probably didn’t even see all the stuff they had to do in the background, adaptions to the house. Other stuff as well.
“So they have to do all that and at the same time trying to deal with what had happened to me. That was kind of my driving factor to get involved in sport, it was the one thing that was missing and my Mam and Dad particularly would have liked to see me getting involved back in sport. Not even at an elite level but just for general fitness and that. To see that I can do it. 2012 I saw the Paralympic games, it had been in my mind and I was like, ‘I want to try that.’”
A phone call to the Irish Wheelchair Association would soon put Monahan on the path to elite level racing. He competed in his first Dublin Marathon in 2013, finishing third, despite being sent the wrong way by a steward which involved going about a mile in the wrong direction.
Nevertheless, the Kildare man was hooked.
He joined Le Cheile AC in 2014 and since then he has never looked back, winning five of the last six Dublin Marathons.
Monahan’s progress has been so rapid that he now views the Dublin Marathon as a training exercise for one of the major races which take place soon after – the New York Marathon.
On the track and on the road, the 34-year-old’s progress over the last eight years has been nothing short of remarkable. But it doesn’t stop there. Mentally, he is in a great place and he puts that down to the “freedom” which the sport has offered him.
“The mental benefits from it are what really made a difference to me. It’s not just…it’s a great sense of freedom. It’s different from going out and going for a push in this chair.
— Paralympics Ireland (@ParalympicsIRE) July 16, 2017
“You feel great after it. You’re training, when your times are getting quicker, good performances and that. But the other side of it is that it took me outside of my comfort zone. I made friends all over the world from different backgrounds whether it’s injuries through wars…
“It’s the same type of thing as me – traumatic. It’s made me travel where I may not have done that. It’s opened a lot of doors for me out of the sport as well which is just as important.”
With the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games now less than six months away, Monahan is determined to improve on his showing from Rio in 2016 where a bout of illness saw him miss out on the track event and impact on his marathon performance.
“I got sick in Rio. At the time I was still doing track racing. I was in bed for a week. So I missed that track race. I done the marathon. I found it really good. Great experience. Bit of an eye-opener as well. It kind of spurred me on to go for better. I think Tokyo will be a better games overall so it will be great to experience it.”
Despite suffering a tragic and life-changing injury, Monahan has persevered and thrived both personally and in the sporting world.
Next stop, Tokyo.
Last week, Paralympics Ireland celebrated the 6 Months To Go milestone to the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. On August 25th the Opening Ceremony for the Tokyo Paralympic Games will take place at the Olympic Stadium with the first athletes competing on Wednesday, August 26th.