The Ironman Triathlete, John McAvoy turned his life around when he became imprisoned for armed robbery. It was in prison where his discovered his greatest passion - indoor rowing.
In an interview with Anne-Marie Batson, he mentioned "I realised how fortunate I was, because I was still alive. But I was lost, I didn't know what else I could do with my life. I didn't want to be where I was. I wanted something different for myself."
Scroll down for a video of the full interview
It was then when he first tried a rowing machine which he credits as a tool that changed his life and helped him cope with being in jail, “ I didn't wanna be involved in the crime anymore but I'm locked in the prison just because I knew I change didn't mean they were gonna let me out, so I had to develop and find a coping strategy.”
“When I was doing these hour-time, two-hour sessions and the first time I done it, I rowed 30 miles, 22,000 metres I rowed and I just remembered I was on this machine, this static machine in a prison jail and I didn't understand about indoor things, I didn't even know that was the word. I just felt this transcending out of that prison gym and when I went through this process where I wanted something else in my life.”
“So when I rowed on that rowing machine for two hours, everyone just left me alone, prisoners didn't talk to me, prison officers left me alone and it was just like I'd come off that machine in two hours and I'd just visualise I wasn't in that place. I did it again and again and again and again, day after day after day after day and I thought this was gonna get me through my prison sentence.”
He was finding a coping strategy in rowing, but then one day he also got noticed by a prison officer, who noticed his talent and ambition “I don't know if stars could collide but that day a prison officer looked over my shoulder - I rowed 10km and I wanted to push myself instead of doing two hour sessions. He said that was really really quick.”
The prison officer decided to bring him a list of rowing records and he realised he was as good as some people on that list, so the seed was planted and he went on about trying to break records. McAvoy says the officer went back and beyond to help him break those records. But it wasn’t just breaking records that the officer helped him with.
"My relationship with exercise and sport, the way it was formed - there was a very spiritual connection with it, I've got a very racy mind, I'm very energetic. When I was going through this process, it was like awakening.”
He explains how sport and exercise have always been different for him, - “When I was sitting on that machine, I wasn't training to go for Henley or Olympics, it wasn't about that, it was about the way it made me feel and the sort of escapism it gave me.”
“I absolutely love training, it literally saved my life. Without the sport, we wouldn't be talking now. I'd probably have ended up dead or spending my whole life in the cage.”
John broke three world records and seven British records whilst in prison. He still holds some of the British records for Lightweight man. After getting out of jail, he started training indoor rowing for a rowing club in London. He explains how one his first session at the club went,
"I watched the London 2012 Olympics in this open prison and on Tuesday night I had Sophie Hosking, who won a gold for Great Britain at the Olympics on the rowing machine right next to me. It was the most surreal experience watching these rowers that I saw in prison 8 months after I'm sitting in this high performance rowing club sitting on a rowing machine next to them. I just thought it was amazing."
John credits the rowing community for all the help he received - "The rowing community for me, the support and help they gave me, especially London Rowing Club is absolutely incredible. I can never be thankful enough."
However, John has quit rowing and focuses on Triathlon now, although he did express how he misses rowing in the interview. "I've completed the Ironman now, I would use indoor rowing for my cross training. That machine changed my life, it's so hard to explain. I was in this box and that machine gave me this little chunk of light in the dark. I wish it was part of a triathlon, because I wish I could still row."
"During lockdown, I rowed for a charity and forgot how much I loved it. It's so much different from riding a bike, running. It's the rhythmical nature of it, it's the breathing, it's like meditation."
When asked if he was in charge of British Rowing, what would he change, he responded "If you really wanna get kids into the sport, you gotta get out there, show kids that it's possible. Loads of kids live on the River Thames but they have never rowed on it, because they don't have access. Open days, storytelling, inspire them, show them it's possible.”