Once Incarcerated, This Man Now Helps Youth Lead Meaningful Lives

Ex-prisoner John McAvoy found a new life through sport—and he’s helping disadvantaged youth do the same.

Running For RedemptionPhoto by Matt Kynaston
John McAvoy, left, leads a group of young people on a trail run.

On a bright September day in the French Alps in 2022, John McAvoy was 38 kilometres into a gruelling ultramarathon through rugged mountain paths. Battling fatigue, he pushed his body and mind through the final stretch of the race. With the finish arch in the famous resort town of Chamonix just four kilometres away and the soaring cloud-topped peak of Mont Blanc hovering over him, McAvoy welled up with emotion. In that moment, he felt so free and alive.

It was quite the opposite from where his life had been a decade before. He had just been released from prison in the United Kingdom after serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery. Now 40 years old, McAvoy has spent the last 10 years rebuilding his life from one of crime to one with purpose. After his release, he began speaking at schools and young offenders’ institutions. But it was on this day, while running the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, that he realized how impactful conquering this mountain run could be for inner-city kids. After all, sport had helped him rehabilitate and open up his world. It could do the same for others.

There were reasons why McAvoy had lost his way. His father died before he was born, and the closest male figure in his life was his stepfather, Billy Tobin, who, like his uncle Mick “the Nutter” McAvoy, was an infamous bank robber. Tobin came into John McAvoy’s life when he was eight years old, and eventually McAvoy started helping with the family’s criminal business. During his first stint in jail, at 19 years old, he spent 365 days in solitary confinement. “It’s like you are locked in a concrete coffin,” he says. By his early 20s, he was locked up for the second time.

McAvoy’s turning point came when his best friend, Aaron, died in a police chase following a heist gone wrong. He vowed to distance himself from bad influences and threw himself into training in the prison gym. A prison officer, Darren Davis, noticed McAvoy’s speed on the rowing machine and saw a young man who needed a chance. Under his coaching, Davis led McAvoy to best a string of British and world rowing records, all from jail.

When McAvoy was released in 2012, he dedicated himself to being a professional athlete—he’s now a Nike-sponsored endurance triathlete and an Ironman—and an advocate for prison reform and youth in sport.

With the help of Youth Beyond Borders, McAvoy started the Alpine Run Project, which recently led 12 disadvantaged British young people through their own Mont Blanc races. The participants, from refugees to young offenders and those who grew up in foster care, were matched with coaches, counsellors and physiotherapists. After a six-month training program, the youth travelled to the Alps to meet up with McAvoy for their race.

With former prison officer Davis (now a schoolteacher) still by his side, McAvoy says the pinnacle of this inaugural project for him was watching Yasmin Mahamud, a 20-year-old refugee from Syria who had escaped family abuse and homelessness, run through the finish arch (last, but not least) and into the arms of her new friends. It was a life-changing high for Mahamud, too—inspiring her to keep running, take up martial arts and go to university to study physiotherapy.

“It changed my point of view on life,” says Mahamud. Pushing herself to complete the race gave her a glimpse of her own potential through hard work and dedication. “I will always be thankful to John for giving me this opportunity and guidance.”

Next, check out these unique ways people are giving back around the world.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada