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John McAvoy was one of Britain's most wanted criminals. Now he's an athlete changing the lives of vulnerable young people

This is John McAvoy's incredible story of redemption from a high-security prison to Nike-sponsored athlete. He is launching a project to empower vulnerable young people through sport and nature

John McAvoy/ young people

John McAvoy is working with disadvantaged young people over the next six months, and they will join him to run in the alps. Image: John McAvoy

John McAvoy was waiting to raid a security van crammed with £100,000 in cash when he noticed a car driving directly towards him. This was intentional. This was orchestrated. In a split second he realised this was a police ambush. He sped through the south London streets, undercover officers in pursuit, prepared to die rather than get caught.

McAvoy was eight when he became enamoured with organised crime, after his mother married a notorious armed robber and he grew up around some of the country’s most feared criminals. 

The 22-year-old had already served time in prison when he and an older man plotted the robbery in 2005. Police had been tracking their moves for months and it had all culminated in this moment: he was being hunted through the streets. He almost got away. Then he hit a dead end. 

“I turned around and suddenly this massive tsunami of armed police ran towards me with guns,” he says. “I remember locking eyes with one police officer and I thought he was going to shoot me. They had police bulletproof vests with machine guns and handguns. 

“I tensed my body up and I thought: ‘He’s gonna shoot me. He’s gonna shoot me.’ I froze on the spot. They dragged me to the floor and I knew what was going to come. I knew I was going to go back to that prison. And I knew I was gonna go back for a lot longer than I went the first time.”

McAvoy has broken world records for indoor rowing and is a Nike-sponsored athlete who has competed in Ironman. Image: John McAvoy

McAvoy received a life sentence and was sent to Belmarsh, one of Britain’s highest security prisons. He thought his life was doomed, but it soon turned in a very different direction. McAvoy is now a celebrated athlete who is changing the lives of vulnerable young people. 

It is an almost unbelievable story of redemption. He had served five years in prison when his best friend was killed in an armed robbery gone wrong, and he decided to rehabilitate himself before it was too late. He got on a rowing machine and spent hours perfecting his craft. 

He broke world records for indoor rowing while he was behind bars and, when he was released in 2012, he decided he wanted to make it as a professional athlete. He is now a Nike-sponsored athlete who has competed in Ironman, and he is launching a project to empower disadvantaged young people through sport. 

“I was so deeply embedded in criminal behaviour from such a young age,” he says. “The people I saw committing criminal activity had millions of pounds. Everyone else was abnormal. I couldn’t understand that people went to work every day and paid tax. I couldn’t fathom it.

“When you’re growing up and the adults in your life are being snatched away by the police, the police become your enemy. It would have been very difficult to pull me away from that world. But I think if someone had spotted something in me as a kid, it might have changed my life.”

McAvoy has discovered 14 vulnerable young people whom he will mentor through the Alpine Run Project. He will connect them to world class coaches who have trained Commonwealth and World Championship athletes, who will craft them a fitness plan and touch base on a weekly basis. 

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And in six months they will be ready to run the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the final leg of the UTMB World Series circuit in the 100m category. The project will also support their journey into further employment and training through Youth Beyond Borders mentorship programmes. McAvoy is determined it will change each one of their lives. 

“I want them to come out of this as better people. I want them to believe in themselves,” he says. “I want them to come out and realise through hard work and having discipline and building that resilience, they can achieve amazing things in their life.”

One of those young people is David, a 20-year-old from Manchester who grew up in care, never truly knowing his family. “My mum wasn’t quite fit enough to have me and my dad was never around,” he says. “Growing up was tough. I didn’t understand the way the system worked. I mixed with the wrong crowd. I was fighting, nicking, robbing people and shops. I didn’t know any other way. No one taught me anything else.”

David running on the treadmill. Image: Tracy LM

David was put in a secure unit, only allowed an hour and a half of free time each day. He kept getting into trouble and fighting with older kids, until his key workers awakened something in him. Was this really all he wanted from his life? He eventually asked if he could get a gym membership, and he used his free time to go to the gym with supervision. His life changed when he got on the treadmill. 

“I kept getting fitter and stronger,” he says. “It felt really good. I felt fucked but it felt good. I had this purpose in life. It was freedom. I could just disappear from everything.”

McAvoy had a similar experience when he started rowing in prison. “It was transcendence,” he says. “I created a portal and the rowing machine took me out of that place. I didn’t understand the process of endorphins and how it made me feel. But it made me feel alive. I felt amazing. It freed me.”

McAvoy had an incredible prison guard, Darren, who helped him nurture his talent and became the male mentor he had never had. David feels the same about his key workers, who found him a running club in Hastings where he met his coach who would later foster him. 

“At first I didn’t really think much of it,” David says, recalling the day he joined the club. “Who fucking runs? Nerds run. The only thing I’d been running from was the old bill. I walked up with my five-inch shorts on and my vest. I’m not a runner. I’m just a little wrong-un who’s smoking weed and getting in trouble.”

David in the gym. He is determined to become a professional athlete. Image: Tracy LM

David ran alongside the fastest runners, and he felt exhilarated. His coach noticed his talent and set him off behind the others, just to see what he could do, and he caught up easily. “I was buzzing,” he says. “I felt like I was on top of the world.”

McAvoy felt this when he first went running in the Alps. Sajid Javid, who was home secretary at the time, removed his life sentences in 2019 and he could finally travel. He went to Alpe d’Huez in south-eastern France, where he would later move, and he fell in love with its scale and power.

“I have never in my life felt a connection to anything like I do with that place,” he says. “The only thing I would ever say I’ve come close to is the love I have for my mum. It was so powerful and magical. I decided to move there.”

The Alpine Run Project will give vulnerable young people who have had few opportunities in life the chance to experience nature and the power of sport. “I want to open up these places to young people to give them an awareness of how big and beautiful the world is,” McAvoy says. 

David was tagged in a post on Instagram calling for applications to the project. “It lit up my eyes,” he recalls. “What an opportunity to hopefully get selected to be a part of the team with John. It was a nervous application. It took me a few times. I kept thinking: ‘There’s gonna be loads of kids. I ain’t never getting selected.’ 

“But I’ve done it and I’m fucking glad I’ve done it. It has made an impact on my life already. I’ve just been walking everywhere with a smile on my face. It has already changed my life.”

David and the whole Alpine Run Project Team. Image: Tracy LM

David is so driven to make it as a professional athlete that he has an altitude tent in his bedroom which replicates the low-oxygen environment of mountain trails, to help him improve as a runner. But this project is about more than just the running. 

“I want to inspire people myself that went through similar struggles in life,” David says. “I’ve never met my family. I’ve never met my mum and dad or two brothers. It doesn’t matter where you come from in life or the struggles that you’ve got. You can achieve anything in life that you really want. 

“You’ve got to put your mind to it though. There’re going to be struggles along the way. I’ve got injured. I’ve struggled. But if you really believe in your talent, and you’re willing to work hard, you can achieve anything in life.”

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The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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