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Episode 95: John McAvoy – From iron bars to Iron Man (Part Two)

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Alice Brine

John McAvoy spent the first 20 something years of his life as a high-profile career criminal. With an insatiable hunger for success and Britain’s most prolific robbers as his role models, McAvoy quickly became one of Britain’s most wanted criminals.

In part two of this special double episode of Xero Gravity, Alice Brine finds out about the moment in time that changed John’s life forever. The moment that led to him becoming not only a career athlete, but an inspiration to children across the UK.

Last week’s episode ended with John agreeing to one last favor for a friend in the UK. Hit play or read on to find out about the life-altering path that final favor led John down.

It’ll be easy, he said

“He asked me if I wanted to go back to work and I said no, because I was going back to Spain. Then he said, ‘alright, can you just do me one favor then? Can you show me where this big money storage unit is in Kent?’”

“I was in two minds, but figured I’m only gonna do him a favor so alright. Unbeknownst to me, getting in his car that morning was the best and worst decision I’ve ever made.”

“We drove to this depot, then we started driving back towards London and my mate said to me ‘are you sure you don’t want to go back to work? I’ve got something really easy in the morning’, so I said yes.”

“The van we were waiting for never turned up, so we went back the next day. We had walkie talkies so the police couldn’t track us, but it turned out there was a 100-man surveillance team watching him, they had been watching him for two months.”

John pulled up down a cul de sac where the van was about to fill up the cash machine, only to find something suspicious lurking in his rearview mirror, three cars moving at a high speed towards him.

“I saw the cars and knew instinctively that it was the police.”

“I drove off about two minutes down the road and thought if I dumped the car there I could get to my friend’s house and get on a boat back to Spain, but I had this overwhelming sense of guilt and loyalty towards my mate still out there. I couldn’t leave him in this little field with a car.”

“As I did a U-turn to go back the way I’d come down, I had to make a decision that I was going to see the police. I saw all the police officers jump out in plain clothes and bulletproof vests, their guns were drawn and they were yelling at me to let go of the steering wheel.”

“I just thought, ‘I’m not going back to prison’, so I chucked the car into first-gear, rammed their car, smashed it, and drove off. I wasn’t going to go back to prison because I knew what was coming, and I knew this time round it’d be for a helluva lot longer.”

“We had a car chase and I got away from them briefly, but quickly ran into a dead end. I looked around and there was just a tsunami of police running towards me. They all had guns drawn and were screaming to get down on the floor.”

“I remember looking at one of the police officers and seriously thinking he was going to shoot me dead,” he says of the entire ordeal.

Round two

John was arrested and taken to Belmarsh Prison in south-east London. He was classed as a double category A prisoner, a title at the time held by only 21 other men in the country.

“When I got there they informed me I was going to be kept on the high security unit (HSU). I didn’t really understand the magnitude of what was about to happen, but when I got there I was immediately aware of who I was surrounded by. I recognized all their faces and the amount of trouble I was in actually sunk in.”

“I was on that unit for two and a half years before I went to court. I got two life sentences for conspiracy to rob and conspiracy to possess firearms with intent to commit robbery. You can’t even get my sentence in British law anymore because it was ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights.”

Being the highly motivated and highly determined person he is, from the moment his sentence was read out, John was already assessing how he could get out as quickly as possible.

“The only realistic way for me to get out was to progress through the prison sentence as fast as I could and take the first opportunity to get out. I’d jump through all the hoops they wanted me to, do all the re-offending courses, and the first opportunity I got I would take it and get out.”

The budding athlete

Part way into his sentence John was moved onto a wing with 70 other men. The training regime he’d established during his first prison stint suddenly became more valuable than ever.

“The prison had fitness competitions every year at Christmas – Superstars and Strongman. I entered both because it got me an extra gym session on a Saturday over the Christmas period.”

“I walked away with Superstars. My natural instinct to be competitive was driving me, which was weird because I’d never put that into sport before. The next day I did the Strongman competition and came out third strongest in the entire prison.”

Eighteen months into his sentence, John was transferred to a category B prison. He was convinced it was his ticket out, but that wasn’t to be the case. What instead unfolded was a situation people wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy.

The turning point

“On November 14 2009 my life changed forever,” he says of the day.

“I was watching a game of football on TV. The Republic of Ireland were playing France in a World Cup qualifier. At the time Ireland were still in the game so I phoned my cousin to talk about it. I asked if he was watching and he just replied, ‘are you on your own?’”

“He went on to explain that my best mate had died in Holland. The man I’d been speaking to the week before had died committing an armed robbery in The Netherlands.”

John’s best friend – who had a clear criminal record – made one wrong decision and had his life taken from him.

“They had about  €200,000 in the car and they got away, but the car tire blew out on a roundabout and my mate was chucked out of the car. He broke his neck and died instantly.”

“It’s hard to explain the effect that had on me. I could relate to the fact I’d been in that situation many times and it should’ve been me. I’d nearly been shot dead twice. My mate was unlucky one time and lost his life, and for what? Some bullshit dream that doesn’t exist?”

“He lost his life at 26 chasing a bit of paper with the Queen’s head on it. It made me realize I was hero-worshipping these idiots who were all rotting in prison and had achieved absolutely nothing with their lives.”

“I realized everything I was brought up to believe was shit. It is shit. I look back on it now and can’t understand how I used to think like that? It was like someone had taken a blindfold off my eyes and I’d seen the reality of it. I swore that night that whatever I do with my life, I will make sure his name lives on through me. If anyone says what I’m doing with my life is great, it’s all because of him. He’s the man that’s created it all.”

The rowing machine

It’s at this point that massive shifts really start taking place in John’s brain. The 180 turn that got him to where he is today really kicks into action.

“I was a little bit lost for a couple of weeks. I knew I didn’t want to live that life anymore. It was like a drug addict trying to give up while locked in a crack den."

“I wanted to get away from the prisoners so I went down to the prison gym and there was a guy on the rowing machine called Mickey Steel. Mickey was was doing one million meters for a children’s charity. He said ‘if you do it for a children’s charity the gym officers will give you a note so you can come down to the gym seven days a week.’”

Eager for a reason to escape his fellow inmates, John jumped on board with the fundraiser. He did his first million miles in a month, and gained so much from it that he did four million more.

“When I was on that rowing machine everyday for two or three hours, I would look at the monitor and everyone would leave me alone. No one would come near me, no one would talk to me, I literally just switched off.”

After one of John's daily 10k bursts on the machine, John interacted with a prison officer who would prove influential in his athletic development.

“I don’t know if it was fate or not, but during the final two million a prison officer called Darren Davis spoke to me. I finished doing 10k on the machine, and when you finish you program the distance in and the screen stops. It tells you how fast you did it and in what split. The monitor stopped and he looked over my shoulder and went ‘my god that’s fast’.”

“A couple of days later he came to me with these bits of paper that had the world and British records for a rowing machine. I looked at them and realized I could already beat some of them.”

Prison officer Darren went off and found a way for John to attempt the records and have them properly officiated.

“The first record I broke was for the marathon. When I broke it, something in my brain tweaked. Everything I’d ever craved – the desire to be successful, to be better than average, to do something meaningful – I realized I could do that through sport.”

The rowing machine sparked something inside of John, and he dedicated the rest of his time inside to the art of athleticism. Within 16 months he had broken all but one British record on the rowing machine. He knew that sport would be his way to break out of the environment he was in.

Life on the outside

After eight long years behind bars John was released from prison. He spent his first morning as a free man at the London Rowing Club.

“It was a performance center for lightweight men and no one knew about my past. A friend of mine had been emailing the head coach and explained I was a novice rower, but when the head coach heard my times he wanted me to come down."

“For the next six months I was obsessed with becoming a professional rower. I thought the transition from rowing machine to water would be quite easy, but what I found was if you haven’t been rowing since you were a kid you’ve got no chance of being an international rower.”

It was at this point that John made yet another major life decision. He decided to end his rowing career and pursue something else. So what did he choose? One of the world’s toughest pursuits, naturally.

“I looked into Ironman races and found out it was a sport you could turn pro in at any age, so from that moment at the end of 2013 I began training seven days a week to catch up to people who had being doing triathlons since they were kids.”

“I didn’t start riding the bike until I was 30, I didn’t swim until I was 30, and I didn’t really run until I was 30.”

Changing lives

Fast-forward four years and John's looking set to turn pro by the end of the year. He has a Nike sponsorship deal under his belt that allows him to speak in schools about the importance of sport, goals, and chasing the dream.

“When I go into schools I can say to these kids that despite people constantly doubting me in prison, I was still able to achieve my dreams. That says you don’t give up on a dream. You might fail, but you just keep going. You don’t lose you just learn.”

“There are so many kids and adults in our prisons that follow a destructive path because that’s what they’ve been exposed to. If they applied that energy to something positive they could be massively high achievers in life. That’s why I’m so passionate about it. I’ve always possessed what I’ve got. It’s been developed, but it was always inside of me. So many kids think the only path they have is to be a criminal, but if you redirect it the options are limitless.”

Today, the ronman races are a massive part of John’s life, but it’s the platform this sporting success gives him to inspire others that really drives him.

“You cannot underestimate what it’s like standing in front of 200 stone-cold silent children who are completely engaged in what you’re saying. They don’t care about ironmans or world records, but when you turn around at the end and say ‘now I’m sponsored by Nike’, it lands.”

“I’m an avid believer that if you’re successful you’ve got an obligation to send the elevator to the bottom and bring people back up. When I walk through that door everyone comes through with me, and I’m determined to use that and help people."

For John, success means reaching a point where he can offer these children real-world opportunities. This is something he’s in the process of turning into a reality.*

“When you go into these schools and talk to these kids then speak to their teachers after, you learn the kids haven’t even been given a chance. They’re being dragged up by their parents and it isn’t fair.”

“If I give a talk at Cambridge University I waive the fee, because I want you to take to 20 children who wouldn’t have access to your school and let them see your uni for the day. Let them walk around, let them see the lecture halls, and it can drop a seed in their brain. It’s about giving them the opportunities to broaden their horizons.”

So what does a man who has had it all, lost it all, and found it all again want in life?

“I want to lead by example and show these kids what’s possible in life. If I can stop even one of those kids from spending one day in prison I will be a happy man. That will be my legacy.”

*All proceeds from John’s book Redemption: From Iron Bars to Ironman will be donated to a foundation creating opportunities for underprivileged children.

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