Kicks, flips and punches are a ‘way of life’ for Northeastern taekwondo star Brian Meagher
Four weeks before the World University Games in China, the Northeastern junior suffered a painful herniated disc in his back. He competed with two teammates anyway — with a surprising result.
Brian Meagher throws a punch. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University
Brian Meagher felt the weight of the moment rising as he climbed the stairs alongside his two teammates. Preceding them onto the brightly lit stage was a sign reading “United States of America.”
“There are probably 1,000 people watching you,” recalls Meagher, a junior at Northeastern. “And a lot of them are Chinese citizens who all want China to win. So if anything happened or if you messed up, you would know because you would hear them all gasp.”
He had been something of a prodigy in taekwondo since his mother enrolled him in a local club in Fairfield, Connecticut, at age 7 — performing well in regional and national competitions despite growing up to 6 feet, 2 inches, a height that adds complexity to his martial art.
But those showcase events in the U.S. hadn’t drawn crowds nearly so large as this audience facing him last month in Chengdu, China. And he never had competed for a prize so significant as this one at the World University Games, which Meagher regards as the second-largest event on the planet for his favored form of taekwondo, known as poomsae.
The setting and grandeur threatened to overwhelm him as he and his teammates bowed to their coach while a clutch of American fans chanted “USA.”
“My brain almost went numb,” Meagher says. “I don’t think anything could have prepared me for what that felt like.”
And there was one more thing — the herniated disc in his back he had suffered three weeks earlier.
With another bow to the judges Meagher and his teammates began their movements, choreographed and synchronized, maintaining discipline in spite of the pressure.
‘He’s been in this world before’
“Northeastern was always my dream school,” says Meagher, and taekwondo had something to do with that.
An older friend had raved to Meagher about the university’s Club Taekwondo. Meagher says the club helps attract students to Northeastern.
“As big as our club is,” says Meagher, referring to its 100-plus members, “it draws in a lot of people that have done taekwondo previously in their life. People look at that.”
In a sign of the sport’s deep influence, Meagher’s college application essay detailed all that he has taken from taekwondo, including a sense of independence that he had been earning since age 14 when he began flying alone to tournaments and training camps, including one in California that took place entirely in the gym — he and the other students would train eight hours a day, eat their meals there and take naps on its matted floor.
His mother, Jennifer Meagher, was initially surprised when Brian, her youngest of four children, instantly fell in love with the martial art. But now the affinity makes sense to her.
“Even when he was quite young he would be very observant with deep insights on things,” Jennifer Meagher says. “My parents would say, ‘We think he’s been in this world before.’”
The quiet child was 10 years old when he began teaching younger students. Meagher gained confidence while investing in himself.
“It gave me a sense of empowerment,” says Meagher, a fourth-degree black belt which has earned him “master” status at his Fairfield club. “When I walked into the studio it just took me away from everything. I felt really strong and powerful. I didn’t have any of my friends from school that did it and I didn’t really want them to. I kind of just wanted this to be my own space.”
Meagher’s sense of the larger world has influenced his career goals. He’s majoring in international affairs with minors in economics and environmental studies.
“I’m hoping I can help tackle the climate change issue,” says Meagher, who is pursuing co-ops to that end. “Climate change is not going to be solved by one country, so that’s why I wanted the international affairs aspect. I also realized that the world is run by money, which is why I was thinking economics; and then environmental studies to help grow my knowledge about the environment.”
The name of his relatively young martial art — developed in Korea in the late 1950s — is drawn from tae (kick), kwon (punch) and do (discipline). The Summer Olympics offers medals for taekwondo sparring, a form that Meagher competes in for Northeastern.
“Sparring is like chess: You have to read what the other person is about to kick or throw,” he says. “I remember getting hit in the chest pretty hard and it was like getting the wind knocked out of you. But you have to forget about that because it could be a foot coming to your face next. You really have to protect your head a lot.”
Meagher has never used taekwondo away from the gym.
“One time I was out with my friends,” he says, recalling an accidental collision with strangers. “They were both upset because they both bumped into each other. I just kind of stepped forward.”
He separated them — “you go over there, you go over there” — while reminding them they wouldn’t be seeing each other again. The innate confidence that he could protect himself if necessary, combined with his size at 190 pounds, surely helped to defuse the situation. A sense of peace can be both intimidating and persuasive.
In its first year as a Division I program, Northeastern’s Club Taekwondo won the Eastern Collegiate Taekwondo Conference. Meagher competed in both sparring and poomsae; he has risen to No. 12 nationally in the latter form with the help of Northeastern assistant coaches Leah Rosenzweig and Andrew Hurd, both former competitors in the program.
There was no surprise that Meagher strove to compete after suffering a painful back injury.
“He’s always very optimistic and positive, regardless of the situation,” says Northeastern head coach George Panagiotakopoulos, who created the club team eight years ago. “To compete with an injury like the one that Brian had, it takes a lot of perseverance, a lot of discipline and basic resilience, because you’re going to have some bad days, some painful days. And making sure that you’re able to manage everything on top of the stress of training and managing your schedule — it takes a lot.”
‘The best run I’ve ever seen’
Meagher suffered his back injury while training on July 1, four weeks before the World University Games. He quickly began a regimen of extensive physical therapy.
“When he said he had a herniated disc, I thought he was going to tell me he wouldn’t be competing,” Jennifer Meagher says. “But instead he said, ‘I’m competing anyway.’”
Jennifer, a special education teacher, had become the office manager of Brian’s club in Fairfield, World Champion Taekwondo, which is run by Master Kwangjin Ha. Jennifer has also taken up the sport and is currently a black belt.
“We did some swimming to help his back, and he did a ton of stretching at home,” Jennifer says. “He couldn’t train as hard as he had before.”
As Meagher marched with the U.S. team into the Chengdu stadium for the opening ceremony, he felt as though he were experiencing a version of the Olympics. President Xi Jinping attended the ceremony, which culminated in fireworks.
“He told me he almost cried because of the fireworks,” Jennifer says. “He said this amazing display of appreciation for the athletes was an experience like none other.”
Much like a figure skating tournament, the poomsae competition was divided into two parts — compulsory and freestyle. In each phase a triangle was formed by Meagher and his teammates, Joseph Yoo of Rutgers and Ryan Real from the University of Pennsylvania.
Most of their punches and kicks were performed simultaneously to the beat of the background music they had chosen. At times they looked like a highly athletic dance team skipping and leaping across the mat.
Meagher limited himself to two head-over-heels flips, in deference to the pain he was suffering. At other times, Yoo was isolated to perform a flip on his own, landing it as their coach celebrated with an exultant punch from the sideline.
Breathing hard after their routines, Meagher and his teammates indulged in smiles as their coach congratulated them.
“He said, ‘Wow, that was the best run I’ve ever seen,’” Meagher recalls. “We were ranked No. 1 at that time, which gave us a shot at a medal with five more teams to go. So it was just a great feeling.”
Then, one by one, they were displaced in the standings. First place went to Korea, followed by China, Vietnam and Iran. The U.S. finished fifth, just 0.04 points short of earning a medal.
The years of perspective he’s gained from taekwondo helped Meagher deal with the outcome.
“I was very disappointed after the results. We all were,” Meagher says. “But we did take into consideration the factors and the conditions. As an athlete, you always want to be on top.
“And when you don’t get that — it’s like, I now have motivation to get there again, and so do my teammates.”
The next World University Games will be held in Germany in 2025. Meagher, Yoo and Real will no longer be rookies on that stage so they’ll have had more time to train together — and hopefully they’ll all be healthy.
“We’ll be eligible because we’ll still be in college and below the age of 26,” Meagher says. “So we’re going to try again.”
A second MRI has shown that Meagher’s back is improving. He is continuing to rehab and train with the goal of maintaining his ascent in the sport.
“It’s definitely a way of life,” Meagher says.