From iron bars to Ironman: How a prison rowing machine turned a career criminal into a record-breaking triathlete

At 16, John McAvoy owned a sawn-off shotgun and spent his time doing grunt work... at 18 he was handed two life sentences. Now he’s the only Nike-sponsored Ironman triathlete. He tells Josie Cox his story

Wednesday 07 November 2018 14:50 GMT
‘It’s amazing how your life can be warped by the people around you’
‘It’s amazing how your life can be warped by the people around you’ (Annie Bradney)

On a blustery lunchtime in early autumn John McAvoy greets me in the entrance hall of Fulham Reach Boat Club. Sandwiched between an upmarket estate agent and the headquarters of an international spirits company, it’s not somewhere you would expect to find the haunt of sweaty athletes and rugged coaches, but the Thames is there and that’s what matters.

With boyish charm, an impish smile and piercing blue eyes, McAvoy bounces in, energetically pumps my hand, and then – without engaging in inane small talk the way so many interviewees tend to do – he begins telling me about the work the club is doing to support the local community. His passion is unbridled.

Fulham Reach Boat Club’s mission, he tells me, is to help young people realise their sporting potential through rowing. It operates as a charity borne out of an agreement between property developer St George and the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. Pupils from local schools who might only know rowing as a sport reserved by the Oxbridge elite and practised once a year on television, can come to the facilities to train, rubbing shoulders with flesh-and-blood Olympians. McAvoy draws my attention to certificates on the walls of the corridor, celebrating records broken by boys and girls who probably never would have touched an oar had it not been for the charity. He’s brimming with pride. You’d be forgiven for thinking we’re discussing his own children.

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