Armed robber turned Ironman John McAvoy on how to deal with the lockdown

"You can really turn this into a positive," says McAvoy who broke world records on a rowing machine and turned his life around in 10 years in prison.
By Rory Jiwani

John McAvoy is the ultimate example of the impact that sport can have on someone's life.

When he was 24, the Londoner was sentenced to life in prison with no parole for five years after his second conviction for armed robbery.

One of those years was spent in solitary confinement.

But McAvoy found his calling in physical exertion, performing 'cell circuits' as part of his routine to stave off boredom before showing his talent on a rowing machine.

He broke three world records while behind bars and, after being paroled in 2012, took to triathlon and became a professional Ironman, having realised he was too old to make it as an Olympic rower.

Now 36, McAvoy spoke to Olympic Channel's Ash Tulloch about his conversion from career criminal to professional athlete.

As someone who made the best out of having his freedom restricted, he is better placed than most to offer advice on what to do in this time of Coronavirus-related restrictions.

"You can really really turn this into a positive and look at your life before the pause button was pressed on your life. When you press play in a few weeks or a month's time, do you want your life to continue on the road it was before your life went on pause?" - John McAvoy to Olympic Channel

The early years

McAvoy's father died before he was born with his mother's ex-husband, Billy Tobin, taking him under his wing when he was eight.

Unbeknown to young McAvoy, Tobin was a prolific armed robber and had just been released after 16 years in prison.

Bedazzled by Tobin's talk about how he was a multi-millionaire aged 21, McAvoy followed him into a life of crime.

He admitted, "It's very attractive when you're a young kid and you've got these older men who live like cowboys, they're very reckless and they've got no respect for the law. You can get sucked in quite easily. That lifestyle of criminality became completely normal to me."

He was still a teenager when he received a five-year sentence for carrying out an armed robbery using a fake gun.

While out on licence, he was arrested again in September 2005 as his gang went to hold up a van carrying cash.

After pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit robbery and one count of possession of firearms with intent to commit robbery, McAvoy was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Due to his family background and concerns he might try to escape, McAvoy was placed in the maximum-security wing of Belmarsh Prison alongside terrorism convicts.

On his time as a criminal, McAvoy said, "I regret everything I did as a young person. I've always accepted full responsibility for my actions. No one made me do what I did when I was a young kid, when I was a man. I made those decisions and I do regret them. I think that's what motivates me so much now to stop other people making the same bad life choices I did.

"But I don't regret spending the time that I spent in prison, that 10 years. It's where I grew as a person, it changed my mindset, it changed my outlook on life."

A "process of growth" behind bars

Relating his time behind bars to the struggles people are currently experiencing with lockdown, McAvoy said, "Initíally, I wanted to fight the system. But I think you have to get to a point of acceptance that this is what it is. It isn't going to change. So it's about how I can make the best of this situation.

"When I was in isolation for a whole year in a segregation cell, if I'd sat there on Day One thinking, 'I'm going to spend the next 365 days of my life locked in this 8ft x 12ft (2.4m x 3.7m) cell', I wouldn't have been able to mentally cope with that. So I had to develop coping strategies and I wanted to grow in that situation.

"I wanted to feel alive and I did that by doing 'cell circuits' - burpees, press-ups, step-ups, sit-ups - and I'd do thousands of each exercise because that just made me feel alive. I didn't understand at the time about exercise and mental health, but obviously it was having a profound impact. And I would read everyday so I went through this transition of growth when I was in this situation.

"I didn't have a release date. I literally never knew when I was going to get out. So I had to keep myself in the moment because otherwise I would have gone crazy."

McAvoy got himself into such excellent shape while jailed that he was able to break multiple British and world records on a rowing machine.

He added, "By educating myself, by getting fitter and feeling good about myself, I was able to turn my whole life around. I went from a criminal, that only knew criminality from a young boy, to suddenly becoming an athlete and breaking records.

"When I came out of prison, it's allowed me to be a governmental adviser and work with 10 Downing St, and be a Nike athlete."

Tips for isolation

McAvoy admits that not being able to train outside as much as he wants during COVID-19 restrictions is "frustrating, but you can't lose perspective of how bad other people have it at the moment".

But what advice can the reformed criminal give on how to deal with isolation in the current climate?

He says, "Routine is very important. For my routine when I was in prison, getting up, exercising, reading, having structure to my day was really important. Keeping that routine, keeping yourself in the moment and staying active for your mental wellbeing as much as you possibly can is key. If you're able to get out for a 10-minute walk to get some sunlight on your skin, just do that. You don't need to go and run, just walk outside. Use that opportunity.

"I know it's hard sometimes when you don't know when it's going to end, but it isn't going to last forever." - John McAvoy to Olympic Channel.

How about those in countries where lockdown means they're unable to leave their houses?

"Even if it's just taking that first tiny step just trying to be active, even if you're just doing squats inside. I managed to get myself in amazing shape in a cell, so you can do it. That really made me feel amazing. It made me feel like a human being and set me up for the rest of the day in a good positive mindset.

"There will be a completion and we will have a normal life again when this gets lifted."

McAvoy is particularly missing training in the French Alps where he says he feels "at home and more content than any other place".

He even has two rocks from there which he touches from time to time,

He watches videos of himself training in the French Alps and says, "I just remind myself, 'Not long, I'll be back.' It might be five months, it might be six months, but it's something I'm looking forward to working towards and going back out there again."

McAvoy admits that he is using this time to make changes to his own circumstances.

"There were things before the lockdown where I wasn't very happy with certain situations and I thought, 'Right, this is a point where I can clear the decks, gather my thoughts.'

"It's about what I want to do with my life when this lockdown ends. Do I want to continue doing things with X, Y and Z, people I was involved with? No. Do I want to go in a different direction? Yes. So this has been a great moment for me to reflect on my own life and I think everyone can do it now, reflect on their situation before the lockdown and where you want to be after the lockdown and the things that you can learn in between.

"You can learn, you can do things with hobbies, you can look for other jobs you potentially want when the lockdown ends across Europe or across the world, and really use this time as a moment of growth."

As well as using these times for personal and physical development, McAvoy also believes that this period can bring people together.

"This is an amazing opportunity for humanity, for people to come together and help your fellow man and your next door neighbour. You don't need to be a multi-millionaire athlete or football player. Even if it's just helping your next door neighbour and just putting a note under the door saying, 'If you need anything just phone this mobile,' and go to the shops for them. We're all in this together and everyone in their own regard is struggling.

"It's about reframing where we are. We're not imprisoned, we're actually saving people's lives by not going out in the community and spreading the virus around. You're actually a service to society." - John McAvoy.

Making a difference

While McAvoy is determined to see how far he can go in Ironman triathlons, he says his main focus is helping others.

"When I started working with kids, people in the prison service, I realised the greatest thing you can do with your live is service to others and helping other people. When I was doing things for people that couldn't do anything in return for me, it made me feel amazing and it was so rewarding.

"If I've made someone else's life a little bit better and their kids' lives are a little bit better because of the interaction with me, that's what legacy actually is. It lives on. Not like winning a medal or being really fast at running the marathon, it's actually human contact with other people."

He's applied that to his current situation by raising money for the Trussell Trust which looks after foodbanks across the United Kingdom.

"I'm quite privileged and I felt quite guilty because I was hearing stories about people who couldn't even put food on the table. So what can I do? How can I be of service to others in this situation if I can only leave my house once a day?

"I've been training for Ironman since the beginning of September. It's the best block of training I've done in years. My running's been the best it's been, my swimming's been the best it's been, it's the first time I haven't been injured in two years.

"Obviously this situation occurs with the virus, with the lockdowns, and I thought, 'I've done all this training. I've got myself into amazing shape so I want to use my body to do something.' My body freed me from prison years ago so I want to use it to give back. So I just came up with the idea to cycle from Lands' End to John o'Groats on my indoor turbo trainer bike."

By road, the two extremities of Great Britain are separated by 1,410 kilometres.

McAvoy did it, virtually, in seven.

McAvoy is full of admiration for another man whose fundraising efforts have made headlines around the world.

Captain Tom Moore, a British army veteran, said he wanted to walk 100 laps of his garden before his 100th birthday in support of Britain's National Health Service.

McAvoy said, "I am absolutely in awe. It's just incredible what he's done, this 99-year-old man walking 100 laps of his garden. He started off wanting to raise £1,000. He's raised 15 million pounds.

"He had a guard of honour from the military. And if I was in a position to give that man a knighthood, I would give him a knighthood tomorrow before he turns 100. In this moment of darkness, he's become this beacon of hope. And he's this little old 99-year-old man, it's incredible. And he's so humble, he doesn't understand what all the fuss is about."

While the COVID-19 crisis has certainly put things into perspective for many people, McAvoy is well used to not taking things for granted.

When asked what one thing he is grateful for, he simply replies, "Being alive."

"There are so many people who went to bed last night and didn't wake up. So me being alive, I'm winning. And I'm happy." - John McAvoy.

Want to know more about John McAvoy's story? Have a listen to more in this edition of the Olympic Channel podcast from 2019.