Can sport save a life?

For John McAvoy, the answer is yes.

World Rowing spoke with McAvoy about his journey from a maximum-security prison to the indoor rowing world record holder and world class Ironman to passionate advocate for youth opportunities through sport.

Then and now

As his cell doors slammed shut somewhere deep behind the razor-wired fortification of Britain’s infamous Belmarsh Prison, John McAvoy seethed with hatred for the system. There he was, locked up next to those judged most criminally irredeemable – terrorists, rapists, murderers. A double life sentence only served as fuel for the 24-year-old’s irresistible determination to escape, to get back to the guns, the money, the criminal high life.

He could never – would never have allowed himself to – imagine what a complete transformation he would soon begin in his own life, and eventually work for in the lives of many others.

Fast forward fourteen years (to 2019) and McAvoy is a changed man: a professional athlete, elite-level Ironman, and world record holder on the rowing machine. His story of metamorphosis is as inspiring as it was unlikely; yet for McAvoy, his greatest legacy is in bringing to countless young men and women the hope he never had for a better life through sport.

Prison Records

“Someone has said ‘you just exist when you are in jail,” says McAvoy as he begins his story. Actually, living is another matter, something McAvoy felt intensely when he heard the news of his best friend’s death in 2009. “I needed to escape the environment I was in.”

In a stroke of good fortune, there was a rowing machine in the gym at the facility he had been transferred to following his first two years at Belmarsh. McAvoy was intrigued by seeing the same person on the ergometer for hours and hours. “I asked him what he was doing and he explained that he was rowing a million metres for a children’s hospice.”

Hoping for some extra gym time, McAvoy asked the guard if he could do the same. “The first row, obviously, I was very naïve,” he says. “I had no idea what technique was or understanding about rate.” Yet no amount of inexperience was enough to hold him back.

“We did a million metres the first month,” he remembers, “and did it again the next month.”

It didn’t take long for the guard to take note and print off a list of British indoor rowing records. McAvoy set to work right away.

“I realized I could break them or get near to breaking them,” says McAvoy, who found something in rowing he had never expected. “How I felt in the gym was everything I had ever wanted as a little boy. As a kid I felt that meant being really rich, but when I broke that first marathon record, I realised that that feeling was this.”

Over the 16 months before his release in 2012, McAvoy went on what he called a “record hunting mission”, setting numerous British and world indoor rowing records, many still standing.

After his release he joined the London Rowing Club, but realising he had started too late to reach the Olympics, he took up Ironman. “I bought myself a bike and taught myself how to swim,” he says. He is now Nike’s only sponsored Ironman athlete. Rowing, however, is forever part of his story.

“I will always be eternally grateful for everyone I’ve interacted with in the sport [of rowing],” says McAvoy. “Without it I wouldn’t be where I am today; rowing changed my life.”

Reaching out

Fulham Reach Boat Club, where he serves as spokesman I s just one part of McAvoy’s mission to help give youth the opportunities that he lacked. Located near Hammersmith, West London along a stretch of the Thames, Fulham Reach BC was founded in 2014 to do rowing differently.

“The intention was to get state school children access to the water way,” says McAvoy. “Two and a half thousand kids from completely different backgrounds take part each year – 50 percent boys, 50 percent girls.”

According to the club’s website, despite sitting on the “Championship Course”, no student from the area has ever raced for either Cambridge or Oxford in nearly 200 years of racing.

Through initiatives like “Future Blues”, Fulham Reach aims to change that; but there is more to it than simple fun and fitness. “It is about the power of sport,” says McAvoy, who shares one of the many stories of a young life touched by rowing.

“This boy was getting bullied at school,” says McAvoy. Even though he was a good student, his opportunities were severely limited and now he wasn’t even able to attend classes. “His parents brought him to the rowing club for something to do. He took that and grasped it with both hands.”

Within twelve months he was back at school again and had broken three world records on the ergo. “The Headmaster at Eaton took notice and offered him a scholarship,” McAvoy continues. “His whole life changed completely by his parents taking him down to the rowing club.”

The most exciting work for McAvoy and everyone at Fullham Reach is only just beginning, he says.

A major new initiative – unique in Britain and perhaps the world – is to take the sport right into the youth justice system. “It will be a rowing club in a young offenders institution,” says McAvoy. “Fulham Reach is going to run an indoor rowing programme in prison.”

For McAvoy it all comes down to giving kids what he never had: both the choice and the opportunity to live in a positive direction. “Once you get them in and get their guard down,” says McAvoy “you can change the course of their lives.”