How triathlon helped former criminal John McAvoy turn from crime

John McAvoy was born into a life of crime, but found salvation on the rowing machine in prison. Now he’s gone from iron bars to Ironman …

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I grew up in a life of organised crime in south London. I was 12 when my stepdad’s grandpa passed away and in clearing his house we found newspaper clippings of how he was a multimillionaire at 21, and Britain’s most prolific armed robber. I can count on one hand the number of people from my past life that have emerged unscathed. The majority are either dead, rotting in prison, or on the run.

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I was convicted of conspiracy to commit armed robbery in 2007. Back then a judge could use his discretion if he thought you posed a danger to the public, and he handed me a life sentence. I was in Belmarsh prison’s high security unit with the 21/7 bombers and Abu Hamza and thought, ‘I’m in a lot of shit here’.

When my best mate died committing an armed robbery in the Netherlands in 2009, it made me re-evaluate my life. All I’d done was cause misery to others for some bullshit fantasy of setting sail to the Bahamas on a yacht.

Locked up for 24 hours a day, I started doing sit-ups, push-ups, burpees by the thousand. It made me feel alive. I then started rowing to be allowed extra gym sessions and completed my first 1 million metres for charity in a month. I set eight British records and three world records, but when I realised I’d started rowing too late to make it as a professional, I turned to triathlon.

Released in 2012, my first race was Ironman UK in 2013. I entered six weeks out, bought a bike from eBay two sizes too big, and taught myself to swim. I finished in 11:48hrs and was hooked. Desperate to be successful, I’d suffer every day in training and dug myself into a hole. I went back to Ironman UK the following year with a viral infection and fell apart. I’ve nearly been shot dead twice and kept in high security segregation units, but when I was throwing up on that run, I’d have done anything to be elsewhere. Sport has given me a lot, and it’s also humbled me.

I want to win my age-group at Ironman Frankfurt in July (9:10hrs in 2016), and will race the Outlaw in Nottingham as part of a relay team. I’m trying to talk Darren Davis, the prison officer who gave me the chance to row, into doing the swim. I set all the indoor rowing records at Lowdham Grange prison. The bike course goes past the bottom gate.

I am determined to stop kids going down the same road I did, looking up to the wrong bullshit, criminal role models. I want to say: ‘If I can become a professional Ironman, you can do anything.

John McAvoy, 33, was sentenced to life in prison in 2007. He now visits schools and prisons to tell his story of redemption.

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Redemption: From Iron Bars to Iron Man by John McAvoy (published by Pitch Publishing on 22 October, £16.99).