And that was it – I never looked back
An Interview with John McAvoy
John McAvoy was a former armed robber who turned his life around to break world records in rowing and is aiming to become a world champion in the Ironman. John has led a quite remarkable life and in this interview we find out why he was involved in crime, what the prisoners on John's wing (which included Abu Hamza) were really like and how John was able to turn his life around and become an inspiration to many.
THANKS VERY MUCH FOR AGREEING TO TALK ME TODAY.
No worries Steve! I’m happy to get involved, and if I can inspire just one person then that’d be brilliant.
THE WAY I FOUND OUT ABOUT YOU, JUST TO LET YOU KNOW, WAS ACTUALLY THROUGH ALEX GREGORY – THE OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST – WHO I INTERVIEWED RECENTLY. I ASKED HIM WHO SOME OF THE MOST INTERESTING PEOPLE ON TWITTER WERE THAT HE FOLLOWED AND YOUR NAME CAME UP. I THEN READ YOUR STORY AND WAS UTTERLY FASCINATED.
Great! I have spoken to Alex a few times. He’s a good guy.
YOUR LIFE IS VERY MUCH IN TWO PARTS AND I AM KEEN THAT OUR READERS CAN SEE HOW YOU’VE OVERCOME A VERY TROUBLED PAST THAT SAW YOU SPENDING A LARGE PART OF YOUR YOUNGER LIFE IN PRISON, BEFORE ENDING UP AS THIS INCREDIBLY INSPIRING RECORD BREAKING ROWER AND IRONMAN ATHLETE (ONE OF THE BEST ON THE PLANET). THE TRANSFORMATION IS QUITE AMAZING, TO NOW BE SPONSORED BY SERCO WELFARE SERVICES AND BE USED AS A ROLE MODEL FOR YOUNG PEOPLE ON HOW TO LIVE A SUCCESSFUL LIFE THAT DOESN’T INVOLVE CRIME. IT’S INCREDIBLE GIVEN WHERE YOU ONCE WERE AND I’D LOVE TO GET TO KNOW YOUR WHOLE JOURNEY THAT LITTLE BIT BETTER.
Cool, sounds great!
READING YOUR BLOGS, IT IS CLEAR YOU WANT TO BE A BIG SUCCESS. YOU WANT TO WIN, YOU DON’T WANT TO MERELY TAKE PART. YOU BROKE ASTOUNDING RECORDS IN ROWING. YOU WANT TO QUALIFY AND WIN THE IRONMAN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS AT KONA, AND YOU HOPE TO ROW THE ATLANTIC IN THE QUICKEST TIME EVER RECORDED. WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER DID YOU ALWAYS HAVE THIS DRIVE AND THIS ‘SUCCEED AT ALL COSTS’ MENTALITY?
So this is interesting. I was having this conversation with someone else the other day. Let’s say for instance you met me ten years ago. And you say to me “I can’t believe you were that person [who was in prison] you’ve changed so much.” I haven’t actually changed. I’ve always been a very, very, focused and driven person. However, before, my goal and my focus was always very money orientated. I always wanted to be the best at doing what I was doing back then but for notoriety reasons than maybe respect reasons. I wanted people to know who I was. However, all this focus and all this drive I had was aimed at a very negative place. To me money and notoriety was success. The people I had in my life, the people I looked up to, all did that. Everyone who I knew who was successful were all committing crimes. I have always had the same personality traits but they were not focused in a positive way. I haven’t had this massive change of character but I’ve literally redirected my focus in life.
IF WE LOOK AT THAT “OLD NEGATIVE FOCUS” THEN. WHEN WAS IT THAT YOU FIRST STARTED COMMITTING CRIME? WAS IT WHEN YOU WERE VERY YOUNG?
Yeh it was probably [pause] around the age of about 13.
AND THAT WAS JUST PETTY STUFF WAS IT?
The normal way for a criminal to progress is through a series of crime that escalates in severity. So it will start being petty and move on to more and more serious stuff. But even at a young age I was incredibly ambitious, albeit all involving negativity. I started at quite big stuff. I never really did petty crime. When I was 16 I wanted money and I wanted success in life, or what I thought at that time success was, so I went straight into the top end of what you can start doing. I am not saying this to hype myself up but I am being honest with you. I wanted to be successful, I wanted money, I wasn’t going to waste my time and not do it properly and just do stupid little things.
I wanted to be successful, I wanted money, I wasn’t going to waste my time and not do it properly and just do stupid little things.
AND SO WHAT WOULD YOU DO? LIKE YOU SAY YOU’RE NOT GOING TO WASTE YOUR TIME AND ROB A NEWSAGENTS OF THEIR CHOCOLATE. YOU’RE DOING IT AT A MUCH BIGGER SCALE, SO WHAT WOULD THAT INVOLVE?
So everyone I associated with were involved in robbery, everything you can imagine. Robbery, firearms, drugs, all those types of offences. It all revolved around this destructive pattern of behaviour. When I was 18 I actually got arrested and I was at the Old Bailey and got charged with nine counts of armed robbery, nine charges of possession of firearms, and those charges got chucked against me. I basically got away with it on a plea bargain – I’d do five years and these charges would be dropped. So yeah it was all around that type of offending, even from that age.
EVEN AT THAT AGE WERE YOU AWARE THAT WHAT YOU WAS DOING WAS WRONG? OR YOU ACTUALLY THOUGHT IT WAS NORMAL AND ACCEPTABLE?
Yeah it was completely and utterly normal to me. I didn’t think it was wrong. I’ve never spoken about this before but I come from a family who were involved in pretty serious organised crime so I was bought up in that environment. It was always spoken about, it was very normal. You were always very aware of surveillance so you would never chat in your living room, or the kitchen. You would walk out to the garden, even as a ten year old, to have a conversation because you knew you were being bugged. You wouldn’t talk on the phone, you wouldn’t talk in the car. I was always around that environment from a very young age.
I JUST CAN’T IMAGINE IT. I LOOK AT MY CHILDHOOD AND IT’S A WORLD AWAY FROM THAT.
I know. I mean these kind of things – not talking in cars and houses – were bred into me, so this type of life was completely normal. I remember one day when I was with my step dad (he’s in prison now for armed robbery) and I was 15 I think. I was with him sitting in his Porsche. He was one of the very few people in the country who owned this type of Porsche, it was specially made and barely any existed in England. I’m 15, sitting in the car with him and we pull up at a set of traffic lights, and I’ll always remember this… he says to me, “look out the window,” and I go “yeah what?” and he said, “See all these people, they’re all fucking idiots. They’re just sheep.” And the problem is, as a kid you’re hearing all this stuff so you think it’s true. Added to the fact I thought he was so successful – flash cars, amazing apartments overlooking the water, suits; everything he wanted he had and to my 15 year old mind it seemed EVERYONE respected him. So there’s me, massively ambitious, desperate to succeed, and I thought ‘well this is it, this is what I need to become.’ Don’t get me wrong I don’t blame anyone. At the end of the day I made my own decisions and was my own man. And I chose my path in life but I had very negative role models. He didn’t make me do anything, I chose to do it but more often that not if you surround yourself with destruction then you will destruct. That’s why I am trying now to teach people, vulnerable people, to surround themselves with good people; to recognise that there are other choices in life and that you’re not destined to be what your family or friends are. You control your destiny – it’s all about making positive, informed decisions.
…you control your destiny – it’s all about making positive, informed decisions.
WELL IT’S AMAZING YOU’VE BEEN ABLE TO TURN IT AROUND AND ARE ABLE TO OFFER THAT SORT OF ADVICE. WHEN YOU WERE AT YOUR PEAK, CRIME WISE, WHAT WAS THE WORST THING YOU DID DO YOU THINK?
The worst stuff I did was armed robbery.
SO WHAT DOES THAT INVOLVE? GOING INTO A BANK WITH A FIREARM AND THREATENING SOMEONE UNTIL YOU GET YOUR DEMANDS MET?
No it was more cash in transit. So like security vans, they were the predominant target. Everything I ever got arrested for was cash in transit, everything truly bad I did was cash in transit.
DID PEOPLE EVER GET HURT?
YES. DID YOU EVER HURT ANYONE PHYSICALLY?
No. But mentally I obviously did, which is probably just as bad. I realise now that it must have been a hideous experience for these individuals having a gun pointed at them.
DO YOU REGRET IT?
Course I do but back then I just had no empathy. This is probably really weird for you Steve but I can only think of one analogy…
NO GO ON…
So the only way I can explain it, and I am not justifying it. Imagine you are an Olympic Rower and you are on the start line of the Olympic final and you’ve got 6 boats all in their lanes. Every single one of those four men in those six boats have given up their life for the last four years. Not once, I bet in the rowers mind, does he think if I win gold then I am going to deprive that other man of winning, and render his last four years to be a waste of time. He’s in it purely for himself, purely to win. There is nothing else. This is it. Four years of his life is down to this moment. It becomes a very selfish outlook as he doesn’t care about no one else on that start line. All he cares about is his end goal. And me, back then, I didn’t care about nobody. Not the person in the van, not his family, nobody. All I cared about was that end goal. That person was just getting in my way from me achieving my goal which was to get that money. So I had no empathy at all. I don’t want to seem callous but back then I was so focused, so driven on being successful, just the accumulation of wealth – that I didn’t care about anyone or anything other than that.
DID YOU EVER INTEND TO CAUSE DAMAGE WITH THAT FIREARM?
No. It was just a way, a prop, for me to get what I wanted.
WERE YOU THEN ABLE TO ENJOY YOUR LIFE WITH THIS SUCCESS AND THE MONEY, THE STATUS AND ALL THE REST OF IT THAT COMES WITH IT?
It’s a catch 22 situation because what ended up happening was that unlike my step dad, I was never very ostentatious. I actually tried to fly under the radar if I could. However because my family were so high profile – my uncle, my step dad etc, the police were very, very, aware of us and me. For example years ago I found tracking devices on my cars so I knew they were watching me. This caused me great paranoia. For example I used to put those little sticky marker things on all my fixings, and lights, because I was so certain they’d install cameras to see what I was getting up to. I taped up my plug sockets and so mentally I was not in a great place.
SO IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU DIDN’T ENJOY YOUR LIFE WHILE YOU WERE ACCUMULATING ALL THIS MONEY?
Don’t get me wrong – you wouldn’t do it unless you were getting some satisfaction from it. The [upside] of doing what you were doing were attractive – I could buy what I wanted when I wanted. My life at that time was also not governed by any rules, or laws. I did what I wanted. So it wasn’t all bad but there was a huge knock on effect in all of this as I just became so paranoid and there was a lot of negative surrounding my life day in day out, which then impacts your mental health. So materially you can enjoy yourself and you enjoy this fake life, this fake existence and put on the front that you’re having a ball. But actually it all catches up with you. It ain’t nice and that whole time I don’t think I was relaxed once, and that is no way to be.
YOU THEN GET ARRESTED AND PUT INTO PRISON FOR NINE YEARS. I’VE READ THAT IT WAS THE HIGHEST PROFILE PRISON IN OUR COUNTRY AND I READ IN YOUR BLOG THAT YOU WERE IN THERE WITH, FOR WANT OF A BETTER WORD, SCUM.
Yep. That’s right.
FIRST, WHY IS AN ARMED ROBBER WHO HAS NEVER PHYSICALLY HURT ANYONE IN THIS TYPE OF PRISON?
It’s because of my family and their extensive links to the criminal underworld – they knew everyone. This meant that the powers that be couldn’t guarantee I wouldn’t escape. They were absolutely convinced that my family’s connections would mean they’d somehow get me out. They couldn’t take the risk so they had to put me somewhere where they knew for a fact I couldn’t get out, and no one could get me out. So I was a category A high risk prisoner. At the time there were only around 30 men in the whole prison system who had this category, out of 80,000-ish prisoners. So yes I was at Belmarsh high security prison unit with round the clock attention. So when I arrive there was me, Abu Hamza…
ABU HAMZA? OH MY WORD.
Yep. The guys who tried to blow up the London Tubes 3 weeks after the London bombings were also there. So there was them, me, and Abu Hamza.
SO DID YOU SPEAK TO THEM?
Well yeah there was literally me, him, those 4 guys and 2 others on that unit. The only way I can explain it to someone was this unit is like a submarine. It’s a prison within in a prison. They’re in there because they are obviously incredibly dangerous to society and I’m in there because they know I’ll escape if I’m not – so it is weird being around these people. We’re super, super monitored in there. Even when you go out for exercise (for one hour) you can’t even see the sky, I am not even exaggerating. It’s like a hamster cage. It’s so that helicopters or rope ladders can’t get over the exercise yard. It was so weird. Even though I am with all these villains and even though I am in this ridiculously claustrophobic place I actually think I became worse in the short term. Because it brings your profile up even more, all the prison officers treat you differently as you are this category A prisoner and in terms of infamy and notoriety – you get that. Everywhere you go out you’ve got armed police escorting you because they think you’re going to escape so because of all these things in some sort of perverse way you think you’ve made it to the big time. And back then, when those things were what I was wanting then prison actually just fed it, just made it worse.
WHEN YOU ARE WITH SOME OF THESE INDIVIDUALS, THE WANNABE LONDON BOMBERS, ABU HAMZA ETC, WHEN YOU’RE TALKING TO THEM ARE YOU ANGRY WITH THEM? KNOWING WHAT IT IS THEY TRIED TO DO, DO YOU WANT TO HURT THEM? DO YOU WANT TO SHOUT AND SCREAM AT THEM? OR DO YOU TREAT THEM AS AN EQUAL IN THE SENSE THAT YOU’RE IN THE SAME MAXIMUM SECURITY PRISON AS THEM AND BEING TREATED THE SAME AS THEM – EVEN THOUGH YOUR CRIMES ARE POLES APART, AND YOUR REASONS FOR BEING THERE ARE TOTALLY DIFFERENT?
So when I very first went in there and I am driven into this weird submarine type of environment and the cuffs are removed and I am seeing these people that I saw on the front pages of the newspapers just weeks before – it was crazy. So my first reaction actually was I did not talk to them, nor did I want to. I didn’t talk to them for the first 6-7 weeks. Literally no interaction at all, which given how tightly confined we all were that was quite surreal, to not speak to these people who you see at such close quarters each and every day. So we get let out for 2 hours a day to do association – basically means just gets you out of your cell for two hours. But you’re not allowed in each others cell. You all are essentially just on this small strip of concrete and they would talk to each other but I just kept my distance. But then I started to think I would never be in this situation, and see these types of individuals again, so curiosity got the better of me. So one day I thought you know what I made the decision to start talking to them. And the frightening thing is, when you start to talking to them, you actually realise how [pause] normal they are.
And the frightening thing is, when you start to talking to them, you actually realise how [pause] normal they are.
Yep it’s frightening. They’re not how they’re portrayed in the media in the sense that they didn’t come across as these maniacs who are continually talking about Islam and how they can destroy the west. When you sit there and speak to them they are actually talking about the same type of things as your mates down the pub – they’re talking about Arsenal, Henry, if Ruud Van Nistelrooy is a cheat, their favourite films, they’re talking about Tottenham and their families and they’re sharing stories about their families.
SO DO THEY SHOW SIGNS OF REGRET?
Oh no. There’s absolutely no remorse there at all. They all claim they didn’t do it. But the funny thing with prisoners is they’re all innocent. Even me, I claimed I was innocent when I obviously wasn’t. Abu Hamza continually denied what he was doing – preaching hate etc. He was so ridiculous that you’d ask him about how he lost his hand, when everyone knows it was when he was making a bomb, and he’s looking at you straight in the eye saying he lost it whilst defusing mines in Afghanistan. So it was impossible to get remorse off these people because they never, ever, admitted what it is they actually did.
But the funny thing with prisoners is they’re all innocent.
SO IF YOU’RE WITHOUT ANY MEDIA BIAS, AND YOU’RE JUST SPEAKING TO THEM IN YOUR SUBMARINE TYPE ENVIRONMENT, ARE YOU THINKING THAT THESE PEOPLE ARE ACTUALLY MORE NORMAL TYPES OF HUMAN BEINGS AND THAT YOU WOULD NOT IMAGINE THAT THEY WERE CAPABLE OF DOING THE HORRIFIC THINGS THAT THEY’VE DONE? SO LET’S SAY WE FIND OUT TOMORROW THAT ABU HAMZA WAS BEHIND SOME MAJOR TERRORIST ATTACK, THE ABU HAMZA YOU MET – WOULD THAT SURPRISE YOU?
Erm. It wouldn’t necessarily surprise me [pause]. I realised that these people were lying, I knew that these people committed these crimes despite their denial. The thing with prison is everyone is saying they’re innocent so I knew they were lying. So when you’re talking to them you’re talking in this fake, make believe world, where everyone is talking to each other like they’re innocent but when really everyone knows that is not the case. So no, it wouldn’t surprise me if I put on the news tomorrow to see he was behind something, in fact I would expect that to be the case.
AT ANY POINT DID YOU FIND YOURSELF LIKING THEM, OR THINKING THAT THEY WERE IN FACT JUST NORMAL GUYS – THEY’RE CLEARLY PERSUASIVE.
No, no no. Not at all. Interestingly though we didn’t spend all that time not saying anything and crying every night – they would laugh, and take the piss out of each other. It wasn’t as stern as you might imagine. I even got in to debates about religion with them. It’s scary because after a while you even begin to forget what they’re in there for and you just start treating them as people but then you remind yourself what they did, and who they are, so you check yourself.
DOES THAT SURPRISE YOU? ARE YOU SURPRISED YOU ARE ABLE TO TALK ABOUT FOOTBALL WITH INDIVIDUALS WHO WANTED TO BLOW UP LONDON AND BRING MASS MURDER TO THE STREETS?
If I wasn’t in that position I would see what the rest of the world sees – the nutters, the blood thirsty murderers. But the part that they don’t see is that they are actually still human – they still like some of the same things as you and I. You talk to these people and they have kids, they grew up on the same type of streets as you. When you talk to them they don’t appear these bloody killing machines trying to kill everyone in sight. The difference between us though is that they have a completely and utterly different outlook on life, and importantly their motivation and drive is totally different. Where I was so focused on earning the money and the riches and would do anything to make that happen, their sole focus was to get rid of America and Britain from Afghanistan and Iraq – that’s all they were motivated by and they saw the means justified the ends. It’s crazy. It’s wrong. It’s the polar opposite of our outlook but they honestly just had this clear focus and didn’t see what they were doing as wrong – that the good of the actions outweighed the bad.
SO THEY HAVE A SIMILAR LEVEL OF FOCUS TO PEOPLE WHO WANT TO ACHIEVE THEIR GOALS AND THEY PUT ALL THE EFFORTS INTO THAT? BUT IT JUST SO HAPPENS THAT THEIR GOALS ARE SO INCOMPREHENSIBLE TO US?
Exactly Steve. It’s mind boggling to me, I could never understand it, but as I say when you speak to these people most things about them are not far removed from what we do and talk about day to day. It’s just their ambitions, their goals, their outlook that is just night and day different. Want to hear something crazy?
IT’S BEEN PRETTY CRAZY SO FAR!
(Laughs) I spoke to Abu Hamza one time and I asked him “do you think you will go to the United States” because they were trying to extradite him, and he was like “Oh yeah, I know I am going.” and I said “what, really?” and he said “I have no doubt in my mind I will be extradited out there.” but he believes, and he told me this, that the harder his life was here, the better his life would be in the afterlife. So he wanted his life to be hell here because then it would be so great, so beautiful, in the afterlife. So you could torture this guy, threaten him, do anything to him and it just won’t work because the more pain you inflict the greater the reward for him, as he sees it. How the fuck do you begin to talk sense into a guy like that, or beat people like that? Nothing will be a deterrent on that type of man. This is the same guy who would say that sort of comment and then talk about Arsenal football club just hours later. Baffling.
I HAD NO IDEA THAT 30 MINUTES AGO WE’D BE TALKING ABOUT ABU HAMZA. AS YOU SAY, FRIGHTENING INDIVIDUALS. IT MUST HAVE BEEN AWFUL FOR YOU TO BE IN THERE WITH THESE PEOPLE AS YOU WERE NOT COMMITTING THEIR SORT OF CRIMES, OR WERE ANYWHERE NEAR THAT SORT OF RISK BUT THAT YOU WERE THERE SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY COULDN’T TRUST YOU NOT TO ESCAPE.
Yep. Most mad two years of my life. It wasn’t until my best friend died on a job in Holland that everything changed for me.
SO LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT. YOU SAID PRISON WAS FAIRLY EASY FOR YOU AND THAT IT WAS MAKING YOU WORSE IN A WAY. HOW DID HIS DEATH CHANGE YOU? DID EVERYTHING LITERALLY CHANGE OVERNIGHT FOR YOU?
So basically him and three guys from Liverpool did a job in Holland. These guys from Liverpool were quite active in mainland Europe and so were out there often committing robberies. And what ended up happening was that he ended up linking up with these Liverpool guys and he even went out with a girl from Liverpool so he became more and more immersed with them. And, anyway, they were doing these jobs for a good few months and they were doing a job for a couple of hundred thousand Euros, and as they were getting away – they had a getaway car – and as they were going around the roundabout very quickly they had a tire blow out on the car. And basically my mate was blown out the car and died instantly. Another two guys died and the final guy broke his back and he obviously went to hospital but some guys broke him out the hospital and as far as I know he’s still on the run now, with a broken back. It wasn’t the fact he just died but it was in the way that he did. You start relating to it, you recognise that that could easily have been you. Where I’ve grown up in that world there was always a lot violence, a lot of people getting killed and so you are exposed to these things, even if the media aren’t reporting it. But this was different. It always happened to other people but this time it happened to me. It was my best mate. I genuinely cared about him and he died in a set of circumstances that I could relate to and I had this moment where literally everything changed. I just thought “what the fuck have I done with my life?”. “What the fuck have I done. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
I just thought “what the fuck have I done with my life?”. “What the fuck have I done. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
IT WAS LITERALLY LIKE THAT? IT ALL CHANGED IN A MOMENT?
Yep it was literally like that. I was in prison and you’re allowed the odd call in prison. I was speaking to my cousin, whilst Ireland were playing France in the World Cup qualifier and he just goes to me “I’ve got something to tell you…Aaron is dead.” I went “What?” and he was like “He’s dead.” and I said “No he can’t be.” The cousin goes “No he is. He’s dead.” I couldn’t process it “He must be in hospital. He must just be injured.” Cousin came back again, “John, he’s dead.” I just couldn’t absorb it. I put the phone down, I went back to my cell and I looked around and saw who was on the wing. And I just sat there and thought “what the fuck have I become?” It was just a moment of realisation – I have done absolutely nothing meaningful with my life, I’ve just spent it in this box.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT THEN? YOU HAVE THIS MOMENT WHERE YOU REALISE YOU’VE LED AN UNFULFILLED AND QUITE DESPERATE LIFE. HOW DID YOU GO FROM AARON DYING AND HAVING A CHANGE OF ATTITUDE TO THEN FIND ROWING WHICH HELPED SAVE YOUR LIFE AND HELP YOU BECOME THE MAN YOU ARE TODAY?
The way it started was I did this rowing thing for charity. I would attempt to do a million metres on a rowing machine because I saw some other guy do that and I thought, ‘you know what, I can do that.’ I first started doing it to simply get out of my cell during the day. I knew I’d mucked up, I was living with this guilt that I’d achieved nothing and I just had to get myself out of the cell. I was able to get a special note whereby they’d let me go to the gym for an hour in the afternoon. So I am doing it, rowing away, having never done it before – and I was enjoying the challenge of it. One day, I am doing it and a prison officer called Darren Davis was watching me and he saw me do one of my sessions and he asked me how quickly I could do these different distances in. So I told him and he went away that night and he printed off all these records and he goes to me “look at them.” and I think well I can beat that, and I can beat that and so he went and explored it all in more detail for me and to cut a long story short he recognised that I was allowed to break all these records in prison – that they would count and he would sign off on them should I do them. So I started doing them and was breaking them [John got 8 British Records] and some World Rowing Records, the longer distance ones especially. Darren went to the governor and the governor was unsure if it was possible for me to do them but Darren had great faith in me and persuaded the governor I could, especially the 24 hour one. So Darren offered to come in on his day off and sit with me for 24 hours to watch me do this record. So in February 2011 I rowed 263,396 meters in 24 hours which is the equivalent of 163 miles.
AND YOU’D NEVER ROWED AT SCHOOL? THAT IS MAD!
Nope. I always felt I could do anything if I just wanted it bad enough, if I really wanted to do it I could do it. I ended up doing the world’s longest continual row at 45 hours, I’ve run a 110K Ultra Marathon despite never ever being a runner and now I am an Ironman triathlete. That’s what I try and teach young people – no matter what your past, no matter what you’re make up, you are born with a heart and with lungs and you can do it. You just need to want it. If you want it, you’ll make it happen. And if you don’t make it then you don’t want it enough.
AMAZING. SOUNDS LIKE YOU OWE DARREN A LOT AS WELL.
Oh big time. He came in on his day off, sat with me for 24 hours, gave me jelly beans. Just an all round top man. Once I broke that first record I realised I was actually really good at something, something legitimate. I realised I had that ability to really push myself and not just be average at something. I realised I could excel at something in my life and it was the first moment that I realised I could get the same respect and admiration and stuff through this, but this was far greater because it was legitimate, it wasn’t fake. I also realised it’s all well and good knowing you can do something but when you actually do it, and you’ve beaten people around the world and others have tried to break it and can’t, and I’d done in it in that environment without any sports nutrition from a prison cell – it showed me I can do this. It just gave me so much confidence.
THAT MUST HAVE BEEN HUGE.
It was. I’d never done rowing. I was terrible at sport. I always got out of PE. When I was 16 I was about 14/15 stone. It was awful but when Aaron died I knew I didn’t want to return to that life so I started to go to the gym and then found I had this ability to keep going. I have not looked back.
WHEN YOU REALISED YOU WERE GOOD AT THIS AND THAT YOU COULD BE A SUCCESS IN LIFE, AND NOT JUST A CRIMINAL, DID YOU SIGN UP TO A ROWING CLUB ON YOUR RELEASE?
What ended up happening was that I was transferred to a lower security prison and began to be reintroduced into society, in a phased way – they send you to an open prison. This means you go out to work and you come back to prison that night. And you do this for a while and eventually they’ll release you completely. So I was part time at Fitness First and when I was there I met a girl who was a rower and she’s seen me on the erg [rowing machine] one day and she asked me if I rowed competitively? I said no but she thought I had huge potential so she started training with me because no one in this gym could get near her. She was actually training to be in the GB squad and went on to be in the Women 8s and is going for Gold at Rio. We used to do it where on the rowing machine we’d compete – I gave her a head start and she’d see if I could catch her etc and so I became pretty good, pretty quickly. And every Sunday I was allowed out for the whole day so she used to take me out to the local rowing club and take me on to the water for the day, and she’d coach me from the side. And then when I was released I joined the London Rowing club. I was released on the Friday evening and was on the water on the Saturday morning. And that was it – I never looked back.
I was released on the Friday evening and was on the water on the Saturday morning. And that was it – I never looked back.
WERE YOU CONCERNED BY WHAT THE PEOPLE IN THE CLUB WOULD THINK OF YOU REGARDING YOUR PAST?
Yes I was. I really was. I didn’t mention it to anyone for the first year but I decided to make the decision to tell my story. I had often thought the sport was quite elitist and I was really worried I wouldn’t be accepted but when I told my story the response by the club, and the people within rowing, was absolutely amazing. It was humbling. I really didn’t expect it and they were also shocked that I used to be that person, because they’d only known the new John. The response I received was touching, I had never experienced anything like it. And to be then asked by SERCO to be an ambassador and to go and do talks, and share my story was again humbling. I owe people a lot, I was given a second chance and I really do appreciate it.
WHY MOVE ON FROM ROWING TO THE IRONMAN?
It was an incredibly hard decision to make Steve. On the rowing machine all my numbers would have put me in the squad but on the water it is different – it is a very technical gap and as I was in my early 30s it was very difficult to close that gap on them. And I didn’t want to waste my time – I wanted to be a champion and if I didn’t think I could be then I had to move on. I had to reach the top of the sport, the pinnacle, and I didn’t think I could do that in rowing.
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO REACH THE TOP?
Because of the events that have happened in my life. I need to prove to myself, and be seen, as someone who wasn’t just a loser in life. For the first 28 years of my life I was a loser. I achieved nothing. I’ve been given a second chance, a chance to create a new definition and I want that to be as a champion – someone who is respected and a role model, rather than some waster who was rotting in a cell. Where I sat in that place for so many years I have to get validation for myself that I can actually achieve something positive, something exceptional, in my life. Sometimes this outlook can be very detrimental to me. When I did the last Ironman, the pressure I put on myself and the ridiculous amount of training I did – without breaks – to succeed at all costs actually cost me. But I am addressing those issues now so it won’t happen again. To keep moving forward and progressing forward it is important to identify when you’ve made mistakes so you can learn from them and become better. I know I will reach the top in Ironman. I know I will. I know I will.
SO YOU’RE CERTAIN YOU CAN BE THE BEST IRONMAN ATHLETE ON THE PLANET?
100%. I need to qualify for the world championships at Kona, and I know the journey will be a long one but I know I will be world champion.
WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU DON’T BECOME WORLD CHAMPION? WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU FAIL?
I won’t. [Pause] I won’t. I failed on July 20th but I’ll go again next year. I will be world champion. I won’t stop until I become world champion.
I will be world champion. I won’t stop until I become world champion.
ARE YOU SCARED IF THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN YOU’LL REVERT BACK TO THE LIFE YOU ONCE LIVED?
Oh no no no. That life has gone. That’s finished. When I came out I detached myself from it all. I don’t see my family no more. I don’t see the friends I hung around with. It’s gone. That’s the great thing with rowing as well, it completely changed my social circle – they are seriously good people, who teach you a lot of important things – commitment, time management, teamwork. That’s the new me. No way would I go back. They’re my new role models. I see how they behave and so I know what it takes to be a champion. So no way, no matter how horrendous things get in the future I would never go back to that life. It’s so negative and no good could ever come of it – no good ever did come of it.
IF YOU HAVE TO GET TO THE TOP SO MUCH, IF YOU HAVE TO BE A CHAMPION, WOULD YOU TAKE PERFORMANCE ENHANCING DRUGS TO GET THERE? TO ENSURE YOU SUCCEEDED?
No. Because I wouldn’t have succeeded if I had done that. At the end of the day people will judge whether you’re a champion or not but the ultimate judge is you, and if you know you’ve cheated then you know you’re not a real champion.
SO WHAT’S NEXT?
I am focused on the Ironman and am also trying to help people who are vulnerable to take a similar path to me. I am often doing talks and events and want to help young vulnerable people and show them that they have choices.
SO CAN OUR READERS HELP WITH THIS?
Well I’d love to get involved with a charity, specifically one that focuses on troubled young people that gets them into sport. I’ll give that some more support but it would be interesting if we’re able to turn my story into something positive that raises some funds for a charity that prevents young people turning to crime.
THANK YOU FOR JUST AN INCREDIBLE HOUR. CAN’T WAIT TO TRACK THE NEXT PART OF YOUR LIFE.
Pleasure mate. Been good to get it all out, and as I say hopefully I can help some people, even if it is just one person.