John McAvoy's sporting rise and redemption is scarcely believable
© John McAvoy

The incredible story of John McAvoy, armed robber turned top triathlete

From armed robber serving a life sentence to Nike triathlete living the dream, John McAvoy’s tale of redemption is scarcely believable. Here, he reveals how his time behind bars gave him an edge.
Written by Joe Ellison
8 min readPublished on

13 min

John McAvoy – The Way of the Wildcard

While serving a double life sentence in prison, John McAvoy found redemption via sport and his "ability to suffer". Follow his incredible story as he strives to make it as a professional triathlete.

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“I’ve nearly been shot dead by the police – twice. I’ve been to court and handed a life sentence at 24 years old. I’ve been put on a maximum-security unit in prison. I’ve been around some of the most dangerous men in the country, actual psychopaths. But if I think back to that day, it was the worst feeling I’d ever known…”
It speaks volumes for the resilience and strength of mind of John McAvoy, once one of the most wanted men in Britain, that the moment the 34-year-old counts as his most painful in life came during an Ironman event he'd mistakenly ran with a virus: “I just fell apart on the run. It felt completely and utterly defeating, it humbled me so much. I thought I knew best but I didn’t."
But if anyone could be forgiven for thinking themselves unbreakable, it’s McAvoy. Sentenced to life in jail at 24 for armed robbery, he discovered a miraculous talent for endurance - subsequently breaking two indoor rowing world records (100,000m and the furthest distance rowed in 24hrs) - and found redemption through sport. Since his early release in 2012, he’s used his story as a power of good. As it happens, he's also presently the world’s only triathlete sponsored by Nike.
To mark the release of a new film documenting his unlikely sporting rise for Red Bull's The Way of the Wildcard series, the tri star reveals how his stints behind bars made him the elite athlete he is today.
Discover another inspirational Ironman story by listening to the below episode of the How to be Superhuman podcast.

1. Exercise made me feel alive

“There were only eight of us on a tiny submarine wing at Belmarsh [the high-security jail]. One guy, serving 25 years for drug trafficking, warned me: “You no longer live, you exist”. But when I worked out in my cell I suddenly felt like a human being – I had control again. It was never about getting a six-pack or strong, it was about feeling alive – my sweat, my beating heart, my endorphins flowing. When I didn't train I would read books. There was a quote that stuck with me from Lance Armstrong’s autobiography. It goes: ‘Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever’ – I had that written in front of me on a piece of paper all night as I rowed for hours on end."

2. My sense of time is warped

“If you factor in previous stints in jail as a youth, I’d spent a decade of my life on earth in a cage, a whole decade. As a result, my perception of time has now been completely warped. Genuinely – I don’t see Ironman events or any competition that lasts for eight or nine hours as a long time, and that’s why I can sit on a rowing machine for two days and row and not get bored. When you’re put in an environment where there’s no escape button and you can’t just get up and walk out of that room, you’re trapped and that is it."

3. Now every second counts

McAvoy with the prison officer who encouraged him to break world records
McAvoy with the prison officer who encouraged him to break world records
“What changed it all for me was finding out my really good friend had been killed after a police chase in Holland. At that moment I realised I had to turn my life around. So I turned to fitness and didn't look back. When I got released from prison at the end of 2012, just after the Olympics, I was absolutely driven to make the most out of my body, constantly chasing time that I’d lost, and as I race triathlons I’m even counting the seconds."

4. I found I could suffer

John McAvoy is the world's only triathlete sponsored by Nike
John McAvoy is the world's only triathlete sponsored by Nike
“If you look at my race results over the years, I tend to be one of the quickest once I get off the bike and I really look forward to the running. That’s my psychology, not my physiology. I learnt early on that I can suffer. Some racers may be fitter than me, but when I get off my bike I enjoy that moment and that test, pushing myself to the very limits of where I want to go."

5. I learned to embrace solitude

A still from John McAvoy's The Way of the Wildcard film
A still from John McAvoy's The Way of the Wildcard film
“I was locked up 24 hours a day in a segregation cell on my own. The only stimulus I had was reading and exercise. You become very self-reliant; nobody will hold your hand, so you’re forced to deal with boredom and come up with coping strategies for being locked up in such a small space. Even now, I do 99 per cent of training completely alone. I swim on my own, I ride on my own and I run on my own. Very rarely will I ever go out with everyone else – I respect other people’s training methods, but I know training solo works for me."

6. Motivation is everywhere

“One lasting memory of my final arrest was the officer telling me I was going to spend the rest of my life behind bars. I felt embarrassed by what I’d done in the past; I felt like a loser, so during the 24-hour world record row, where I was really suffering with deep psychological pain, having never exercised for so long continuously, I kept thinking about his words, wanting to prove him wrong and wanting to achieve something with my life."

7. In sport, I found myself

Even now, after release from solitary confinement, McAvoy trains alone
Even now, after release from solitary confinement, McAvoy trains alone
"I wouldn’t go so far as to say growing up was like The Sopranos, but as kid I encountered a lot of dangerous men. My stepfather was an infamous criminal and his mates were alpha males – it was all about not showing weakness. You didn’t cry. I had to demonstrate how strong I was, that they couldn’t break me, which is how I acted when I first went to prison. Yet it was only when I found exercise that I realised the only person I had to prove something to was myself."

8. I’m a beast at indoor training

“I still do a lot of cycling indoors, and I can sit on the saddle for five or six hours. I’ve got friends who’ve competed at the Olympic Games and cannot comprehend how I can sit on an exercise bike for that long looking at nothing apart from a monitor with numbers on it. I go into a trance – you have a lot of time to self-analyse when you’re in the zone.

9. Legacy matters

“When you’re trapped in a room staring at the same small walls you can feel time dripping away. Consequently, I’m an avid believer in legacy; I want to pass the mantle onto others. When I talk in schools, the kids don’t always get the world records, they don’t always get the sport, but when you turn around and show them the Nike symbol, they all understand. They’ve got the shoes, the bags, and it’s such a powerful tool. It’s aspirational to a lot of young people. And having been in jail for a life sentence six years ago, I can say legitimately, with no bullshit attached, 'This is how you do it. It takes hard work'."

The future

Pretty inspiring, right? Well, after speaking to thousands of young people in schools and youth offender units, McAvoy recently set up his own foundation to help troubled and disenfranchised youths. He also claims witnessing a terrorist attack first-hand last year made him even more eager to get his message out there, as he explains:
“On the day of the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack last March, I'd been into the Houses of Parliament to meet the Minister of Sport. As I reached the car park to leave I heard all of these screams and saw the attacker breaking a cordon. He was shouted at to stop but didn’t, and then I heard, ‘Bang, bang, bang’. It’s hard to process what you’re seeing in a moment like that. At first glance I thought he was a protester. My friend Mike, who was with me because he runs rugby schools in prisons, jumped down straight away behind a car and told me they were gunshots. Mike's also a former battlefield combat medic, so he ran over to help the policeman who was attacked, but sadly the victim died.
"That tragedy was caused by a man who, like myself at one stage, was disenfranchised in life. I chose to attack the system with armed robbery, and he chose to attack it through killing people in the name of Islamic extremism. He was converted to do it. This stuff is preventable. If you reach out to these people as young adults, they’re less likely to have so much hatred towards the system when they’re older. That’s how you prevent it. And the power of sport can help."