John McAvoy on rowing to redemption
When my best friend died while I was in prison, it made me look at my surroundings and think, ‘What the heck have I done with my life?’ My friend died in a car chase in Holland [trying to steal £200,000]. I’d achieved absolutely nothing, sitting in prison since I was 24. All I’d done was cause destruction to everyone that I had cared about: my mum, people that I loved and myself.
I looked at the misery I’d caused and thought, ‘I don’t want this anymore.’ Before my friend died, change wasn’t on my mind. I was simply a criminal.
At the time, I was in Belmarsh high security unit, serving eight years for conspiracy to commit armed robbery. The sentence was serious. Even the prison officers didn’t believe I could be inside for that long for what I’d done. In hindsight, they were probably trying to make an example of me.
It was to show others that, if you do this, at this age, you are going to get a lengthy jail sentence. They put me in maximum security for the majority of my sentence, because they thought I was going to conspire to break out.
Over prison meal times, I’d listen to people talk about crimes they’d committed, and thought, ‘I can’t deal with this crap any more.’ I knew I was done with this way of life. Then, by chance, I was into fitness in prison. It was my form of escapism. Locked up with myself for 23 hours a day, I began training obsessively. One day in the gym a guy was rowing on a machine for charity.
I asked the officer: ‘If I do that, can I have extra gym sessions?’ He said, ‘Yes.’
I got faster each month. My body went through a process, and I woke up to an ability that I didn’t even know I had. That prison officer walked behind me one day as I was rowing and looked at my monitor. He said: ‘That’s really quick.’ A few days later he returned with the British records for rowing. Some of them weren’t that good and, so, the seed was planted.
During the next 16 months, I held nearly every British rowing machine record. I soon started to read all the autobiographies on leading sportsmen in the prison library.
Now I’m out, my dream is to race in the Ironman World Championship one day. But the hardest part will be getting a visa to the US. All I can do is build a portfolio and hope the US Embassy will grant me permission.
Experiences shape you to become the person you are today. Rowing has given me a hunger and drive to be successful and I’m determined to leave behind a legacy.
John McAvoy’s Redemption: From Iron Bars to Ironman is out now, £16.99, Pitch Publishing
FIND YOUR BALANCE
Do’s and don’ts for getting and staying in shape
When I was in prison, I found Lance Armstrong’s story of beating cancer and achieving the impossible inspiring. He cheated, but who gives a f***? He raised millions
When I started training, it was to get me out of prison. Training towards a goal helps you to
stick at it.
Pass on what you know
If I can stop one kid going down the wrong path like me, all of this would be worth it.
I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. It took me five or six attempts to break one of the rowing records.
Listen to cynics
I don’t want negative people around me. That negative energy won’t allow me to become a better person.
Eat the wrong things
I’d buy seven packs of porridge a week from the prison canteen. I’d also get this disgusting tuna and nuts, and would make porridge with nuts, peanut butter sandwiches and tuna and lived off that every day.