After growing up around some of the UK’s most feared criminals, John McAvoy became an armed robber, living the high life until he was captured by police in a high-speed chase and sent to prison with a life sentence. Now he’s a Nike-sponsored triathlete who counts Olympians among his friends and tries to keep other kids from going down the same criminal path he did...
The sport of IronMan triathlon, where athletes can spend much of the 112-mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run alone both on the road and in their own heads, demands a certain sort of mental discipline. In that, it’s not dissimilar to ultra-endurance indoor rowing, where record-setters can spend anywhere up to two days sitting on a Concept2 rower, methodically cranking out pull after pull in pursuit of the highest distance possible. John McAvoy, who’s working towards being a pro triathlete and is already an indoor rowing record-breaker, has a secret weapon for both disciplines. It’s just not one he’d recommend to anyone else.
‘I know that it warped my perception of time,’ says McAvoy of his experience in prison, where he spent one of his eight years inside in complete isolation, categorised as a severe escape risk and left in a cell for 23 hours a day. ‘When I talk to a lot of my friends now, even some of them who are Olympic rowers, people who are very accomplished in sport, most of them can’t understand how I could spend seven hours on a Wattbike on my own with no mental stimuli other than looking at the monitor. It all comes back to those years in isolation. Two days on a rowing machine doesn’t actually feel like that much to me, and I’m not just saying that. It’s like anything – your brain gets used to it. My boredom threshold is very high. I wouldn’t recommend going to prison to build it, though.’
‘Two days on a rowing machine doesn’t actually feel like that much to me’
For McAvoy, prison was always a possibility. His uncle, Mickey McAvoy, was part of the infamous Brinks-Mat gang behind one of the biggest gold bullion robberies in British history. His father had died when he was young, and his stepfather is currently serving a life sentence for armed robbery. At 18, McAvoy got his own five-year sentence for possession of a gun, but was released after two – only to be talked into a heist by a partner in crime who was being tracked by the Flying Squad. This time, McAvoy was sentenced to life. With little else to do in his cell, he threw himself into a solitary fitness regime: burpees, press-ups and step-ups, a thousand of each per day. Eventually, he was transferred to a less secure prison in York, still planning to renew his criminal career one day.
In the end, it took two events to change the course of McAvoy’s life. In 2009, his best friend was killed in a car crash during a getaway from a holdup, and he suddenly saw what he was doing with a new clarity. ‘It changed my life,’ he says. ‘If they’d said ‘Okay, you can go free,’ that day I’d have never done anything outside the law again. Then he discovered the indoor rowing machine, and the sport discovered him: as luck would have it, during one of McAvoy’s marathon sessions, a guard named Darren Davis happened to glance over his shoulder.
‘He came back with these bits of paper with the rowing records on them,’ remembers McAvoy. ‘It was… he was the first man in my life since I was a little boy who wanted me to be successful who didn’t have an agenda, who wasn’t after me for my contacts or because I could help them with something. He saw that I needed help and wanted to turn my life around, and he helped me do that. He was my only real outlet in prison.’
‘I’d disconnected myself from the criminal side of my family, all of those people who were a negative influence on my life… and then when I sat on the rowing machine in prison, that disconnected me from all the negative influences on the inside. The only person who talked to me was Darren – we’d talk about endurance sports, his kids, his expeditions – he’s cycling across Europe later this year, trying to break a record. Without that man I wouldn’t be the person I am today.’
‘I went from not being a runner to being able to run a sub-three hour marathon in eight or nine weeks’
Tough On The Outside
On his release, McAvoy set his sights on rowing success, but soon realised that with little technical training and such a late start in life, getting a spot in the team GB system would be almost impossible. Instead, he set his sights on IronMan, where world champions tend to peak in their late thirties. Even then, he had a lot on his hands. ‘I didn’t get on a bike or learn to swim until I was 30, and when I was going to these races from the very beginning, I was racing against guys who’d been doing it for a long time,’ he says. ‘I had a very driven mentality, but I didn’t know how my body would respond, how to train properly.’
As a result, one of his very first races became one of the worst experiences of his life. ‘It was a cumulative thing,’ he explains. ‘I was very ill leading into that race, I’d basically trained myself into the ground. When I came out of prison, I went from not being a runner to being able to run a sub-three hour marathon in about eight or nine weeks, because I’d just go out and run a marathon around Battersea Park every weekend. I was getting quicker and quicker, because I was transferring across that fitness that I’d built up over years in prison. So because I could see the splits getting quicker I kept pushing, but I was demonstrating all the symptoms of overtraining – I wasn’t sleeping, I was getting a virus, and I turned up on the day in a terrible state.’
‘As soon as I got out of the swim I couldn’t stop being sick, on the bike I couldn’t take in any nutrition so I was basically doing it starved. When I hit the run I still tried to go out at sub-three pace but in the first 3km the wheels on the bus completely fell off. So I thought “Well, I’m just going to keep going,” but I was throwing up in bushes, having to stop, couldn’t hold anything down. That day… I just felt so embarrassed, I felt humiliated, ashamed of myself… of all the things I’ve done in my life, that race humbled me probably more than anything I’ve ever done. I’d put so much time and effort into it and got no reward, and I felt like I’d let a lot of people down who’d travelled to watch me.’
The Fight Back
It could have been the end, but instead McAvoy turned it into a learning experience. ‘Sport’s given me so much, but it’s also taught me valuable lessons,’ he says. ‘You can’t just turn up and go “I’ve got this,” you have to respect the training and the sport. These days I’m very respectful of the distance, I don’t take anything for granted. And I’m also willing to ask for help. When I was growing up, you never showed weakness and you never asked for help – it was a very Alpha male climate where if you wanted anything in life you’d go get it yourself.’
‘So a lot of those traits stayed in me, and when I was getting into sport I didn’t trust anyone else to help me. But what I realised when I fell apart was that this attitude wouldn’t help me to get where I wanted to. And that was the first time I had to put my dream into someone else’s hands and go: “Look, I need your help to get me where I want to get to.” It really taught me to reach out.’
Now, McAvoy has his sights set on becoming a pro in IronMan. His criminal record means getting a visa for the Kona World Championships is unlikely, but he travels to every event with Davis – ‘he helps me out with nutrition, and he’s one of the trustees on my charity the McAvoy trust,’ – and he’s already planning for three more full-distance races this year. ‘I know I’m physically capable of hitting the numbers, but it’s about putting it together on the day.’
‘I’d done everything you’d think you could do in that world to be happy – driven fast cars, been to exotic places – honestly I was miserable’
A New Legacy
But, as he drags his race times closer to the magic eight-hour mark where elite races are won, McAvoy is reaching out to others, visiting schools and institutions for young offenders to steer teenagers away from the mistakes he made. ‘If I could speak my younger self now, I’d do everything I could to show him the misery and destruction it was going to cause,’ he says. ‘And to say that actually the most rewarded in thing in life is to help other people.’
‘I’ve done everything you’d think you could do in that world to be happy – taken drugs, driven fast cars, been to exotic places – and honestly I was miserable, always searching for something more. I’ve never felt emotion like the connection I have when I go into schools and kids tell me ‘You’ve made me want to do something better with my life.’ Sport is great, you get a medal at the end, everyone goes, ‘Oh, you’re fantastic,’ but the older I’ve got, the more I’ve realised that what you give back is the most rewarding thing. That’s what it’s really all about.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch John tell his story in The Way Of The Wildcard, below, then take a shot at coming close to McAvoy’s best 2,000m row time (check with your doctor first if you’re new to rowing). ‘It’s the standard for every GB athlete,’ he says. ‘I managed 6:18, but anything sub-seven minutes is very good. Even if the pain’s a lot worse than anything you get on the bike…’
To watch the full ‘Way of the Wildcard’ series, head to Redbull
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