Armed robber to Ironman: How sport saved John McAvoy's life

The former British criminal who used a prison rowing machine and love of sport to turn his life around and become an Ironman triathlete.

5 min By Ashlee Tulloch
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Once one of Britain’s most wanted criminals, John McAvoy says he would be dead if it wasn't for sport.

''I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It literally did save my life." he told the Olympic Channel Podcast.

After a career in crime, and serving 10 years behind bars, he became a record breaker and is now a fully professional Ironman triathlon athlete.

The 35-year-old is on a mission to help inspire, and prevent other young people from making the same mistakes he did, and spoke to the Olympic Channel Podcast about owing his life to sport and his new motivational quest.

McAvoy submerged in family crime

John McAvoy was born in England in 1983, and grew up surrounded by organised crime in South London.

His step-dad was one of Britain's most prolific armed robbers and was a multimillionaire at the age of 21 years old.

Motivated by money, McAvoy decided he wanted to be involved in organised crime too.

''I made the decision at quite a young age that I was going to follow inline with what my stepdad and all of his friends were doing.'' - John McAvoy to Olympic Channel podcast.

At 16 years old he purchased his first gun and a criminal career began.

Two years later, he was handed a five year prison sentence for nine counts of armed robbery.

Prison time for armed robbery

During his first stint in jail, as an 18-year-old, McAvoy refused to obey guards orders and was confined to an isolated cell.

He remained in that cell for 365 days, and in that time started training and working out.

''I made a decision when I was in that cell that I would educate myself, I would read. And then this is where I started exercising. Because up until this point I never exercised at all. And I didn’t even know the names of the exercises I was doing at the time" - John McAvoy to Olympic Channel Podcast.

But his mindset did not change.

After two years behind bars he was released, and was more determined that ever to commit crimes.

His freedom was short lived.

At the age of 24, he was put in a high security unit in the maximum security Belmarsh prison after being given two life sentences for armed robbery.

''I really got the gravity of how much 'the system' was going to do everything in their power for me to stay in there as long as I possibly humanly could.''

His fellow inmates included Abu Hamza and the London 21/7 suicide bombers.

''When I saw them, I thought, 'I am in a lot of trouble.''' - John McAvoy to Olympic Channel Podcast.

Turning point for McAvoy

While serving his second prison sentence, McAvoy found out that his best friend had been killed in a car crash after an armed robbery.

He revealed that this was the moment he changed his life's path.

''I needed to get out.'' - John McAvoy to Olympic Channel Podcast.

"I made the decision from that night that I would never commit a crime ever again, that was me done. I wanted to get out of this place, and I wanted to do something else with my life. I didn’t know what it was or what I was going to do but I knew I didn’t want to do this anymore."

As a form of escapism, he started rowing in the prison gym.

It was there a prison officer noticed that he had ability.

''I remember the first time I got on the rowing machine, when I was 26. The first row I ever did was two hours, it was like 30 thousand metres. I remember looking at those numbers on that rowing machine and it literally transcended me out of that environment completely.''

As an inmate he went on to break eight British and three world indoor rowing records, including the longest ever continuous row, for 45 hours - 263,560m.

Instead of being intoxicated by money, he was driven by the will to succeed as an athlete.

The Londoner was turning his life around.

Redemption and the power of sport

Once released in 2012, McAvoy set his sights on a rowing career.

''I remember, the judge said to me, 'What are you going to do when you come out of prison'. And I said, 'I am going to be a professional athlete.''' - John McAvoy to Olympic Channel Podcast.

''I used to do sessions with guys who went to the Olympics at London 2012 and physically, on a rowing machine, I could live with them. But I took up the sport too late so I literally missed the boat.'' he added.

After that dream failed, McAvoy turned to Ironman and hasn't looked back.

But as well as training and competing as a triathlete, he runs outreach programmes in a bid to help troubled youth.

''You need to give every young person in the world an opportunity to better their lives. And I genuinely believe sport can do that.'' - John McAvoy to Olympic Channel Podcast.

He say's he's committed to help prove the positive power of sport.

''If you gave me the option between winning an Ironman, or winning a gold medal at the Olympics, or sacrificing my whole athletic career to stop one kid going to prison. I’d sacrifice everything. It wouldn’t even be a conscious thought.''

John McAvoy was this week’s guest on the Olympic Channel Podcast.

Each week we find athletes and speakers to talk about the biggest Olympic talking points.

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