Photo: On the left Commissioner Tibor Navracsics, on the right #BeActive Ambassador John McAvoy.
John McAvoy has an extraordinary story to tell about how sport saved him. He is a former armed robber who owned a sawn-off shotgun when he was 16, which he used in hold-ups across London. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to a life term. He ended up spending the better part of a decade behind bars in jail, including time in solitary confinement, before getting parole. It was in prison that he found his redemption through sport.
“I stumbled into sport by chance,” he says. “I was in a prison gym, and a prison officer spotted how good I was on an indoor rowing machine. He helped open up a whole new world for me by making me believe I could become a sportsman. It was an unconventional start. Basically, my career as a rower and triathlete stems from being in prison.”
McAvoy says that, as a youngster, he was overweight and often the last to be picked for the team. But by working out on the prison rowing machine, he found a new purpose in life. Within 16 months, he had broken three indoor world records – all while behind bars: the fastest marathon on an indoor rowing machine by seven minutes, the record for the longest continuous row (45 hours) and the furthest distance rowed over 24 hours (264km).
The day after he was released in 2012, McAvoy went to the London Rowing Club to continue his training and turn his back on crime for good. He set his sights on the triathlon – even though he couldn’t ride a bike and had rarely run more than 10km.
A full Ironman triathlon is one of the most gruelling endurance events anyone can undertake: swimming 3.9km, then cycling 180km, before running the full marathon distance of 42.2km. In early 2013, McAvoy made his Ironman debut, completing the course in 11 hours and 49 minutes, ranking 287th out of just over 1,300 finishers.
Now 36, McAvoy travels the world competing, making speeches and hosting workshops as a Nike-sponsored Ironman triathlete. “The best thing about being a triathlete is that you can eat quite a lot. I train 25-30 hours a week. I eat healthy, but I can eat a lot of food,” he says.
McAvoy believes that sport can have a positive impact on mental health – which is especially important for Ironman competitors. “The toughest part is the psychological element of how long it is,” he says. “Because it can last anything from eight to 10 hours – if you’re fast! So it is quite challenging to keep yourself in that moment for that long and not let your mind drift off on the bike when you might have another six hours of exercise left before you finish your race.”
He is also proud to be a #BeActive Ambassador. “I’m immensely respectful of the privilege of being an Ambassador, for what it’s going to let me do back home in London, to bring together young children from across the capital, from different areas,” McAvoy says.
His work includes helping children from schools in deprived areas and explaining how a sport that changed his life can change that of others.
For the European Week of Sport, he will organise a rowing and boxing day. “Rowing changed my life,” he says. “We’ll bring kids together and they are going to row and kayak on the River Thames. We’ll include boxing in it. We’ll ship them in from different communities, so they can all mix with each other, sharing a passion for sport and exercise.”
McAvoy has to be active every day because of his job as a professional triathlete. “I’m quite fortunate in that regard,” he says. “But in many ways that’s irrelevant because training for me was never about sport, it was never about being an elite athlete. Training in some of the hardest moments of my life, where I could have easily sunk into depression or drugs – well, I was fortunate in that I found sport. Sport can make you feel amazing about yourself.”
The #BeActive message is universal, he says. He urges everyone to get off the sofa and get out. “You don’t have to buy a bike. You can walk, you can go to the park, you can swim, you can play tennis,” he says. “Give being active an opportunity. A lot of people get very scared by the thought of sport. But by just joining a dance class, or anything as long as your body is moving, you get a rush of endorphins!”